Robot avatars can serve as social selves of bedridden patients

Robot avatars can serve as social selves of bedridden patients
Kentaro Yoshifuji, the director of Ory Laboratory, speaks about his robot OriHime in Musashino, Tokyo.
PHOTO: The Japan News/ANN

OriHime is a communication-oriented robot avatar developed by Ory Laboratory Director Kentaro Yoshifuji, 27, that can be controlled remotely to enable conversation and action in place of a distant user. In addition to serving as an antidote to solitude, OriHime is drawing attention for its potential to tap into new forms of expression.

The following are excerpts from Yoshifuji's interview with Yomiuri Shimbun Staff Writer Katsutoshi Samata.

Supporting speech, gestures

OriHime is, in a word, a robot avatar. The user can control it via a computer or tablet device while watching live, streamed footage from its camera. The sounds heard by OriHime are delivered to the user, and the user's spoken voice is reproduced by the device.

The head, which features a camera, can be moved up and down, and left and right. Peripherals can be added to control its line of sight, too. Starting on the Tanabata Festival on Tuesday, we're renting out a limited number of the units.

The robot can be placed in an office or school to allow a person to remotely attend. By projecting motions - like nodding, raising one's hand and clapping - people's responses are completely different to a scenario where you just patch in via teleconference.

My assistant Yuta Banda, 26, was involved in a traffic accident when he was 4 years old. He can't move his body from the neck down, but he uses his chin to input commands into a computer, and he writes e-mails and manages our growing collection of business cards.

Although he's hospitalised in Morioka, he operates OriHime from the hospital to make the rounds with me when I attend lectures.

What's it like to be confined to a bed for more than 20 years? What do patients need? People can use OriHime to engage with people directly and transmit their messages to society.

Robotics born of necessity

I've been weak ever since I was younger, and emotional and bodily ailments kept me from attending school from the fifth year of primary school to the second year of middle school. I didn't go to school for almost 3½ years.

My mother, who was worried about me becoming socially withdrawn, saw that I took a liking to origami craft and suggested that I apply to a local robot competition. This started things off.

The theme for my development was to create a robot that could clear obstacles. I was so happy when I won the competition, I threw myself into programming.

I went on to a technical high school, where I was totally engaged in manufacturing from morning until as late as 11 p.m. I built a device to keep wheelchairs from toppling, winning first prize in a domestic competition and third prize in an international one.

Before long, I started receiving requests to develop a new robot along the same lines, even though I was still a high school student.

Today, Japan's population is increasingly aging, and there are many people who cannot attend school due to illness. After speaking to many people, I remembered my days of being home-bound.

I felt that tackling this question of solitude was something I could devote my life to.

Conveying presence, awareness

Imagine the pain and frustration of not having someone by your side during a time of hardship, or feeling as though you've been abandoned by society. Solitude is a major source of stress.

How could I help eliminate this problem? I enrolled in a vocational high school in Kagawa Prefecture and attempted to solve the dilemma with artificial intelligence that could exchange communications.

I thought that solitude could be eased if I created an android that could be like a friend.

I immersed myself in research, but I soon began to feel that something was wrong.

I found myself wondering whether I actually would've been able to return to school if I'd had an intelligent robot like that in my early youth. I concluded that I would've been less lonely with such a companion, but still unable to reenter the school environment.

I started to think that the key issue was making personal connections, not relying on artificial intelligence. Making a reentry into society requires these connections. I realised that real compassion only exists on a human-to-human basis. I began to think I could create an avatar, an extension of oneself, to go to the places people long to go or ought to be.

I dropped out of the vocational high school and made my way to Waseda University in April 2007, where I began development of the new robot. Everyone believes that information has value, but our original intent as humans is not conveying information - it's sharing our presence with others.

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Born in Katsuragi, Nara Prefecture, Yoshifuji created OriHime in 2010 while studying at Waseda University. He established Ory Laboratory, based in Musashino, Tokyo, in September 2012. OriHime is 20 centimeters tall and weighs 500 grams. The robot was exhibited at the Consumer Electronics Show - the world's largest consumer electronics and technology tradeshow - in Las Vegas in January this year.

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