Mouth-less Keepon Robot Gets a SmileAs Winner of Carnegie Mellon's Smiley Award

PITTSBURGH—Marek Michalowski, a Ph.D. student in robotics, and Keepon, an ingratiating robot that looks like a tiny yellow snowman, are the winners of this year's Smiley Award, presented annually to a Carnegie Mellon University student for innovation in technology-assisted person-to-person communication.

The $500 award, presented by the Computer Science Department and sponsored by Yahoo!, is named in honor of the ubiquitous Smiley emoticon, :-), created at Carnegie Mellon in 1982. FaceFlip, a hilarious technological twist on the Web sensation called Chatroulette, will receive an honorable mention for creator Maxwell Hawkins, a freshman in computer science.

Both projects and all of the nominees will be recognized during a celebration at 4:30 p.m., Thursday, April 29 in the Rashid Auditorium of the Gates and Hillman centers.

Keepon, a spongy robot about the size, shape and color of two yellow tennis balls, was created by a Japanese scientist, Hideki Kozima, to study how small children develop social behavior. It also is used as a tool in therapy for children who have developmental disorders such as autism. Michalowski has worked with Kozima for several years, expanding Keepon's use by studying how rhythmic movements affect interpersonal communication. With two cameras as eyes and a microphone for a nose (but no mouth), Keepon can bob along to a musical beat or respond to a person's movements. Keepon is perhaps most famous for a couple of popular YouTube videos in which it dances to songs by the band Spoon.

"Keepon is undeniably cute, but that wasn't a deciding factor for the judges," said Scott Fahlman, a research professor of computer science and language technologies and the inventor of the Smiley emoticon. "When we saw the video of its interactions with autistic kids and how it got them to come out of their shells, we realized the potential of this thing and why Marek deserved recognition for his work."

Michalowski, who completed the defense of his Ph.D. thesis in December, said winning the Smiley Award is a huge honor. "Although the robot was originally designed to facilitate interaction with children with autism, it's been exciting to see how rhythm has made Keepon resonate so powerfully with people around the world," he said. "And Keepon's minimal form certainly shares the simplicity of the emoticons we use to add emotional context to our everyday communications."

Hawkins created FaceFlip as a class project this spring. Its starting point is Chatroulette, a website that pairs random strangers for webcam-based conversations. At any point in a conversation, either participant can opt out and be randomly paired with another partner. Usually, the Chatroulette site displays video images of both participants; when a Chatroulette user happens upon a partner using FaceFlip, however, that user instead sees his or her own image sent back with the face — and only the face — flipped upside down.

"Everybody thought it was hilarious," Fahlman said. "It's very clever. And we were blown away when we learned that that this was conceived and implemented by a freshman."

The Smiley Award was established in 2007 during the 25th anniversary celebration of Fahlman's invention of the Smiley emoticon. The feat took all of 10 minutes, Fahlman recalled, but it addressed a need in the early days of computing to let readers of online bulletin boards know when a writer was joking. It is a need that persists in this age of emails, Facebook posts and tweets. Fahlman said he hopes the prize will encourage development of more student projects that enhance person-to-person communication via computer, as the Smiley did back in 1982.

Byron Spice | 412-268-9068 |