Cyber servant

The Smart Companion is a nodding, talking and listening robot designed to act as a friendly link between the human and the digital world.

The notion of a computer with human attributes has long been standard sci-fi fodder. But now engineers from Philips in Germany aim to bring the concept into the home courtesy of the Smart Companion: a nodding, talking and listening robot designed to act as a friendly link between the human and the digital world.

Hans Driessen, spokesman for Philips Home Dialogue Systems (HDS), which developed the Smart Companion, said the device combines advances in robotics and image processing, as well as face, gesture and speech recognition, to provide an unthreatening and intuitive interface with the digital devices in a user’s home.

Driessen said the system has numerous applications. For instance, in response to a voice command, it can retrieve and read e-mails, playback audio, or get the latest pictures from a computer’s hard drive and display them on a television screen. It can also use a broadband internet connection to retrieve information from the web, effectively acting as the user’s browser.

‘Rather than having to open a PC and browse through menus, the system enables you to easily access information by voice command,’ said Driessen. He added that the system could also be used for home surveillance or to keep an eye on elderly or infirm relatives.

Driessen said the Smart Companion is easy to use because of its distinctly human-like behaviour. ‘It interacts with users in a natural way, by understanding spoken requests, giving replies, recognising faces and using head nodding and shaking or coloured light,’ he said. ‘It even recognises individual users and can turn its head to follow users as they move around in the room.’

So far the system has been put to the test in Philips’ Eindhoven-based Home Lab, a ‘smart home’ test bed where researchers use observation cameras to monitor how users interact with technology. Dreissen claimed that in the case of the Smart Companion, even users not particularly comfortable with modern technology formed what he termed an ‘emotional bond’ with the system and found it very easy to use.

‘People feel more comfortable using technology when it’s embodied in this way,’ he claimed.

Philips plans to launch a full demonstrator of the technology in Berlin later this summer, but beyond that has no intention to develop the system as one of its own products. Instead, the company plans to license the technology to anyone interested in incorporating its principles into their products.

Driessen confirmed that the company is discussing licensing opportunities with a number of undisclosed consumer electronics manufacturers.