Klaus vom Hofe


Cult robot connects people

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The Maschinenmensch named Maria who appeared in the 1927 silent film "Metropolis" was one of he first robots in film history. Now, 90 years later, Deutsche Telekom has lent Maria's face to a new robot. But the new robot is not going to be misused for the same nefarious purposes as its cinematographic predecessor. Instead, she'll be bringing people together.

Phil Cornforth demonstrates the Roboter-Avatar.

The smartphone display shows viewers the world as seen by the eyes of the robot. You can use your smartphone very easily to make her shake or nod her head simply by tilting the phone appropriately. The robot that Phil Cornforth of Deutsche Telekom is showing off here for a photoshoot works in exactly the same way even if there are thousands of kilometers between the robot and the smartphone user operating it. Including the quality of speech communication.

The as yet unnamed Deutsche Telekom prototype is more than just a robot: it is what is called a robot avatar. That means it is an artistic manifestation that can be adopted by Internet users – except that in this case it is not simply a digital entity, but a tangible sculpture with an electronic interior life.

All users need is a smartphone with a connection to the Internet. Via that connection, you can control the head movements, and thus the field of view of the figure, wherever it happens to be in the world. A microphone and speakers allow the people gathered around the robot converse with the people controlling the robot at a distance. The robot's operators enjoy the sensation of almost being there in the very same room: simply tilting the  smartphone or tablet is you need to do to move the robot's view to the left or right, up or down. And the device will show precisely the image being recorded by the cameras installed at eye height on the robot. That means the smartphone user is looking directly through the "eyes" of the robot. If the user enhances the experience by wearing a VR (virtual reality) headset, then he or she will get a three-dimensional view of the robot's surroundings. And that view will give them the impression of being even closer to the event at which the robot is physically present.

The robot's inventor, Phil Cornforth of Deutsche Telekom in London, has deliberately aimed for simplicity. He has designed the solution so that as many people as possible can access the technology, and has therefore made it usable by all smartphone users, which are far more numerous all over the world than people with access to VR technology.

The robot avatar has already celebrated her debut at the climate conference held in Marrakesh last year. Students located in Great Britain used it to take part in conference sessions, and to interview participants on-site. They blogged and twittered on the experience. The achievement was made possible by the cooperation between Deutsche Telekom and the Walker Institute at the University of Reading (in the UK).

But this year the robot has appeared in its new costume. At Deutsche Telekom's Climate Day in Bonn it came dressed for the first time as the iconic Maschinenmensch from Fritz Lang's silent classic "Metropolis". First screened 90 years ago, it was the first feature-length science fiction film in history, and the first ever film treatment on the theme of robotics. Deutsche Telekom were allowed to reproduce the robot's visual appearance with the kind permission of Walter Schulze-Mittendorff's daughter. Schulze-Mittendorff was the sculptor who created the original. You can find more at the artist's website.

It is not the first time, though, that this apparently timeless sculptural masterpiece has appeared on a public stage. The makers of Star Wars produced a male equivalent of the original in its famous C-3PO. The machine also appeared in pop culture in other ways – in fashion and, for example, in a sequence of the Queen's music video for hit single Radio Gaga. In it, her face is seen morphing into that of lead singer Freddy Mercury. 

What did Phil Cornforth bring to the table by making the Robot Avatar a reality? The basic idea leans heavily on the phenomenon of video conferencing, which can save huge amounts of time and money, and above all emissions. "That's nothing new" the engineer tells us. "But people who are unable to attend a happening in person can be brought especially close to the events going on at it and to attendees using the robot avatar – and they can be guaranteed the full attention of their colleagues."

Robotic open heart surgery: Phil Cornforth prepares the avatar for its public appearance in Bonn.

Robotic open heart surgery: Phil Cornforth prepares the avatar for its public appearance in Bonn.