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May 2012

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Roy the Robot: The Birth of the Android Pitchman


by Glen Emerson Morris

The development of CGI over the last 20 years has largely replaced the need for robotics, animatronics and special effects makeup in Hollywood. In the original three Star Wars films Yoda was a physical puppet. In the last three Star Wars films, Yoda was completely done by CGI. The result is that there are a lot of out of work animatronics and special makeup professionals available for work in the advertising industry.

Over the next decade, local market advertising will increasingly have the production values of current national market advertising. Local advertisers will be able to have Geico gecko like spokesthings (for want of a better word) for no more than the cost of a real spokesperson. Local ads will also feature special effects worthy of Hollywood, and a cast of characters worthy of a Ridley Scott production. Likely the most useful of all the technologies flowing from Hollywood downstream to local markets will be androids, even more than CGI. Ultimately, CGI is limited to a computer. Unlike a CGI character, an android can make a live appearance, and it looks like an android is going to pretty soon.

Essentially the following things have to be available before androids can take off, and they are:

  • Commodity priced servo motor components
  • Environmental sensors to make the android aware of its environment
  • Commodity priced android body frameworks
  • A microcontroller capable of controlling the android's motors
  • Some way to program the android
It looks like everything is in place now.

In late June the hit of the Maker Faire 2012, the Roy the Robot project, received enough funding to proceed with development. This makes it likely that by fall an android (as in robot, not computer) kit will be on the market enabling anyone with a few thousand to build their own android. Roy's success is no surprise to those who saw him at the Maker Faire 2012 in Silicon Valley. Mythbusters picked Roy as their favorite project at Maker Faire, and so did I.

One of the most remarkable things about Roy the Robot is how well it worked as a pitchman on kickstarter.com, a fund raising Website for citizen research projects. Roy's creator, Brian Roe, posted a video featuring a pitch by Roy, and in less than a month over $9,000 dollars was raised. With the right programming, this android could be made to sell anything.

We're at the beginning of another revolution is advertising, this time the technology is robots in human form, or as they're otherwise known, androids. The revolution here really about affordability. Like 3D printing, another destabilizing technology, androids are a technology that's been around for decades, but limited by a price tag that could run from hundreds of thousands to millions of dollars. That's about to change because Roy isn't your average android.

Roy the Robot is revolutionary in several ways. Roy the Robot is powered by an Arduino microcontroller about the size of a pack of playing cards. There are dozens of sensors available for the Arduino platform that enable it to monitor and react to things going on in its vicinity, including, motion, speed, proximity, sound, color, temperature, humidity, barometric pressure and many other variables. Probably the most remarkable thing about it that it's primarily made out of wood parts made with a laser cutter. This keeps the cost low, and makes it easy to mass produce it.

Roy the Robot's wooden frame also solves a major liability problem facing anyone who turns a life size robot loose with the general public, and that is the potential damage or harm the robot can do. A robot the size of an adult made of metal is going to come in at 150 pounds or better, and the power required to move that much metal reasonable quickly is more than a match for human strength. A life size wooden android could be under 40 pounds and the low voltage servos needed to power it would mean at best it could generate a few pounds of force.

Creating Roy is only part of the work involved with android presentations. The missing piece is the software required to record the presentations in a format the robot can use to play them back with. Currently, each action of Roy the Robot is recorded one track at a time. An upgrade in software will increase that to eight tracks at a time, and even faster ways are becoming possible.

The Kinect sensor for Xbox, designed to capture to motions of people playing video games, can be adapted to program Roy. A Russian company has released an app that converts input from a Kinect to several of the major motion capture file formats used by the film industry. It is possible to write an application, or driver, that would convert these files into actions by Roy.

Soon, androids will be able to link to the Internet and base the sales presentations they make on current market conditions. In the near future, we can expect androids like Roy to interact with the public with the ability to understand questions people ask about products and provide appropriate answers. We can expect to see androids giving sales pitches in store display windows, on showroom floors, in kiosks, at product exhibitions, at transportation terminals and many other places you'd like to put a real salesman but don't have the budget or manpower to.

My guess the transition from a "no androids anywhere" environment to an "androids are common" environment in under five years. My bet is someone will feature Roy in a national spot, the spot will go viral, and within weeks, every advertiser will be wanting one.

You can avoid the rush by ordering now. Brian Roe is selling kits that can be easily assembled with just a few hand tools, much like a 3D puzzle. Adding the electronics shouldn't be any more difficult. At this point Brian Roe has only designed and built Roy from the waist up. Having no legs, Roy is unable to walk but that's not really necessary for a lot of uses, like in a window display.

The only real issue is the process of recording Roy's pitches. It's not that easy now, but this issue will likely be resolved by the time Roy and his cousins start showing up in public early next year. Avoid the rush. Buy the Roy components already on sale now and learn how to use them. You'll probably be glad you did. Androids are here to stay, and they won't take no for an argument.





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