Robot's dancing speaks louder than words

The little guy is mute but is one great communicator.


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Keepon is just a simple robot, with a yellow snowman shape, round eyes and button nose -- but no mouth.

The little guy is mute, but oddly, this speechless "bot" is one great communicator.

That's the point Marek Michalowski, a 27-year-old doctoral student at Carnegie Mellon University's Robotics Institute, is proving with two YouTube videos featuring Keepon's uncanny ability to dance.

Why speak when you can boogie? And why waste words when eye contact, motion and the ability to capture undivided attention creates more meaningful interaction?

It explains what keeps Keepon truckin'.

A rock video featuring Keepon, which Mr. Michalowski programmed to dance to the rock group Spoon's song "I Turn My Camera On," has been downloaded 1.6 million times on www.youtube.com.

A second video produced for WIRED magazine shows Hideki Kozima, Keepon's creator, carrying the robot through Tokyo to the beat of Spoon's song "Don't You Evah." Throughout, Keepon dances for an adoring street audience. That video has been downloaded almost 500,000 times, making Keepon one of the biggest dance sensations this side of "Dancing With the Stars."

Both videos also can be viewed on www.beatbots.org.

While the videos have proven Keepon's human appeal, the double-bubble yellow fellow's key role is to interact with children. Keepon has shown promise in encouraging social behavior in children with developmental disorders, including autism.

"Keepon's simple appearance makes children comfortable, and its lifelike movement makes it attractive to them," Mr. Michalowski said. "This combination creates an environment in which social interaction is encouraged."

While the robot can dance to almost any song, it also can identify visual and other sensory rhythms, helping to prove how rhythm and synchronization in body language are paramount in human interaction.

As such, Keepon has schooled roboticists in how to improve human interaction with robots.

"Robots of the future should not be stiff," Mr. Michalowski said. "For us to be comfortable interacting with them, they'll need to be attuned to environmental and social rhythms."

Keepon also proves that robots don't have to look precisely human. More important is human-like motion, interaction and timing. Understanding the rhythms of social interaction is key to Mr. Michalowski's research.

Dr. Kozima, a Japanese roboticist, invented Keepon as a tool to develop social interaction with children. Only a few prototypes have been produced, and Mr. Michalowski is using one in his research at Carnegie Mellon.

Videos show Keepon under human control maintaining intelligent eye contact with a child and also looking around as living things would. Youngsters eventually treat it as a friend. The durable robot is made of soft silicon rubber "to protect the robot from the children and protect children from the robot."

"Kids become comfortable with it," Mr. Michalowski said. "We've conducted hundreds of hours of observation, and the robot seems to encourage interaction in ways that these children might otherwise not be comfortable with.

"It's promising."

In August, Keepon won a grand prize of 10,000 euros in Denmark as the most playful robot in the Robots at Play Festival.

After Mr. Michalowski's first video appeared on YouTube, WIRED magazine asked him to produce a second video and display Keepon in September at its NextFest expo in Los Angeles.

A common comment from 4,000 YouTube viewers is that the robot dances better than they do.

"Keepon was designed for kids, but adults say they want one on their desk," Mr. Michalowski said. At this point, prototypes are too expensive and are not for sale.

Dr. Kozima couldn't be reached for comment on Mr. Michalowski's role in the Keepon saga.

While making Keepon dance was important in Mr. Michalowski's research on social rhythms, making rock videos was a sidelight. But it proved Keepon's mass appeal.

"It's a basic human trait to be attracted to rhythm," he said, noting how rhythm defines life. "We have a heartbeat and swing our legs when we walk. Many of our physical activities are rhythmic, so we look for patterns in our social behavior as well."

Still, Keepon's success in entertainment was unexpected.

"That's definitely surprising," Mr. Michalowski said. "While we didn't expect it, we're certainly encouraged by the overwhelming response we've received."


David Templeton can be reached at dtempleton@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1578.


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