- Photo by Dave Bullock (eecue.com): Marek Michalowski and Hideki Kozima demonstrate Keepon to visitors at Wired's Nextfest in September 2007.
Keepon looks like a little yellow snowman with a rubbery body built to withstand hours of use and abuse by young children. Created by Japanese roboticist and developmental psychologist Hideki Kozima, currently at Miyagi University, it was designed to interact with children and provide therapy for developmental disorders such as autism. Its round eyes contain cameras and its charcoal-colored nose hides a microphone, enabling Keepon to record the reactions of the people interacting with it. Four motors in the robot's base allow it to turn left and right, nod its head up and down and rock from side to side.
Michalowski joined Kozima's lab three years ago during a summer internship in Japan, where he began studying rhythm in human-robot social interaction. After working in Yale's Social Robotics Lab and graduating with bachelor's and master's degrees in computer science and a bachelor's degree in psychology, he'd planned to focus on verbal communication at the Robotics Institute. But after working with some of the university's most famous talking bots, he became convinced much of what humans communicate has nothing to do with speech, but rather in non-verbal cues.
"There is a synchronization of rhythmic behavior between interacting people," says Michalowski, who decided he wanted to capture that in robots.
Michalowski felt an immediate rapport with Kozima and Keepon, which can speak volumes without making any sound. After imagining that the robot had a desire to dance, he developed software enabling it to do just that. For fun, he made a video of Keepon dancing to the song "I Turn My Camera On" by the Texas rock band Spoon. It garnered two million hits after being posted on YouTube.
After that posting, Kozima says, "the explosion" came. Soon he and Michalowski were traveling to festivals and contests around the world. In 2007, Wired magazine invited Keepon and Spoon to shoot a follow-up video for the band's hit song, "Don't You Evah." (It featured Kozima and Keepon exploring Tokyo.) Then Keepon won the 10,000-Euro "Robots at Play Prize" in Odense, Denmark, and first place at the International Conference on Robotics and Automation's Human-Robot Interaction Challenge. (It repeated the latter feat in 2009.)
Keepon and the researchers have twice been invited by Wired to exhibit at NextFest, and they're slated for their third appearance later this year at the magazine's conference, which is probably the premier showcase of the latest global innovations in computers and information technology.
And Keepon's reputation continues to grow. In April, Keepon was featured in an NBC "Today Show" series on autism and in a Popular Science magazine article on robots and autism. In May, Pennsylvania's Technology Collaborative, which focuses on economic development of robotics and other digital tech type companies, invited Michalowski and Kozima to demonstrate Keepon at a briefing of the Congessional Robotics Caucus in Washington, D.C.
Michalowski and Kozima's collaboration has changed both of their lives. They've formed a company, called BeatBots, to commercialize the robot for research, therapy and entertainment. Right now there are only about a dozen Keepons in the world, each loaded with motors and cameras and costing about as much as a small car; Michalowski is developing a less expensive version of the robot. Meanwhile, as he finishes research for his thesis, he's conducting studies at Carnegie Mellon's Children's School and with children in Japan, observing the way they play and dance with Keepon. He is refining the robot's perception algorithms, designing interactive scenarios and developing methods to evaluate rhythmic interactions.
"We see Keepon as a research platform, something to be used by hobbyists, researchers or therapists," Michalowski says. "And we're enabling this technology to mesh with people's natural rhythms, so that robots can be more useful and accepted in society."
Robotics Institute Research Professor Reid Simmons, who's working on a game-playing robot to be housed in the Gates Center for Computer Science, is one of Michalowski's advisors. "There are things Marek's working on that definitely will be important in this next generation of robots that we're developing," he says.