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The characters of robots

Posted on September 25, 2012 at 9:00 am

Keepon Pro by BeatbotsIn addition to being useful in all kinds of applications, from surgery to delivery, robots can be cute too. Such a robot is Keepon, made by BeatBots. Marek Michalowski is the roboticist behind BeatBots. The company was founded in 2007, when Marek was finishing his PhD in robotics at Carnegie Mellon. Marek wasn’t focused on the practical aspects of robots; he wasn’t searching for a killer app. Instead, he was interested in endowing robots with additional dimensions of interaction – in space and time. He calls it “social intelligence.”

It’s a deeply thoughtful and unique approach to robotics. Marek describes how his interest in robotics got ignited:

“I spent a couple of years during my undergraduate and master’s years at Yale with Brian Scassellati. He convinced me that intelligence is meaningless unless it’s embodied in the real world. Only in robotics can you talk about intelligence in the way that we think about it. And social intelligence is a kind of intelligence as important as visual or motor intelligence.”

In his early years of his PhD, one of his projects was working on Reid Simmons’ now famous Roboceptionist that greets everyone who enters Newell Simon Hall on campus. During his project work, Marek got exposed to research on the social science side of things, how people interact. In fact Marek and his colleagues became part of a social scientist’s thesis about how roboticists build social robots. That sparked Marek to think about the limits of how robots have, to date, interacted with humans:

“I was more interested in the non-verbal behavior than the verbal behavior of the robot. Eventually I felt like I was running into some limits in the physical capabilities of the robot. The roboceptionist couldn’t quite make subtle physical reactions. As we examined how people interact and synchronize with each other, we realized there is a rhythm to it. Robots have been really bad at negotiating those rhythms. They don’t generally recognize the temporal aspects of human behavior. I wanted to make a robot that could do that.”

That brought him to Keepon, the cute little yellow robot invented by Japanese scientist, Hideki Kozima, who is now at Miyagi University and who works in cognitive science, artificial intelligence, and robotics. Marek had known about Keepon from his time at Yale. But it wasn’t until his revelation about robotics and rhythm that he thought that he could apply this dynamic to an existing robot.

Dr. Kozima developed Keepon to interact with autistic children. This is not unique as there are several research labs and companies that have discovered the benefits of robots for those with autism. Last December, NewVenturist featured an article on Interbots, a company which developed Popchilla, a robot and game for autistic children. Marek tells me about the intersection between robots and autism research:

“People with autism are often interested in systems and machines. If we can piggyback social engagement onto their interest in those toys, maybe we can learn about and treat the condition. Robots could potentially help us deliver care for those with autism.”

Marek’s search to apply physical dynamics and rhythm to robots brought him in the summer of 2006 to work with Dr. Kozima in Japan.

“He put a Keepon on my desk. I saw it and said, ‘I think he wants to dance.’ Maybe I perceived something in the robot’s soul that wanted to be released. Dance is very orderly form of social rhythmic synchronizing — regular beats and clear physical movement. So I decided to write software to make Keepon dance.”

How Keepon became a phenomenon is a great story. First, Marek made a video with music by the band Spoon to show his friends what he was working on. Then, Dr. Kozima and Marek ended up using the video at a conference. A reporter asked Marek if he’d put the video online. He asked Spoon for permission, and the video soon made it to numerous blogs and eventually the front page of YouTube. It got a million views in a week. And that made Marek realize, “we had something really compelling, something universally engaging.”

Marek thinks that, while there had been other videos of Keepon online for a few years, there was something about the cuteness of the robot and the rhythmic spirit that he had programmed into it that made it so popular so quickly. People related to Keepon. Wired Magazine had an idea to do a professional music video with Spoon. So, in the summer of 2007:

“Wired flew us to Tokyo with two of the members of Spoon, and we spent a few days going around Tokyo, dancing. We danced with people and machines and other robots in a robot store. The music video was professionally edited and put online to promote Wired NextFest and Creative Commons.”

Designing robots at BeatbotsThat video spread quickly to millions of views. Marek was still earning his PhD (he graduated in May, 2010). But he realized that he didn’t want to go the academic professorial route with his degree. He wanted to take Keepon to the next level. So, he did what all smart PhD students do who want to commercialize their innovations – he founded a startup. With prize money won at a festival in Denmark for the most playful robot, Marek and Dr. Kozima set up a company – BeatBots. This is November, 2007.

The following year, the pair took Keepon to NextFest in Chicago. They got a lot of attention from companies who wanted to license the character: “But we didn’t know which direction to go. The discussions took an interesting turn when we started getting requests from researchers to buy copies of the robot.” That made them think about manufacturing. Unfortunately, the sophistication of the robot meant that the minimum they could make it for was $30,000. They sold about six or so at that price. But that was not a sustainable model for a company.

Marek fundamentally understood the process of pivoting. He saw it as an “evolution as different opportunities popped up.” A lot of requests came in and a lot of things fell through. Marek buckled down to finish his PhD. Then he got interest from a multinational household-name entertainment company to purchase a number of BeatBots robots to develop interactive entertainment. Once he graduated, Marek walked out of CMU and into a large contract to deliver these robots.

My KeeponBeatBots was off and running with revenues and additional opportunities. Marek took a serious look at the toy market and realized that he could develop a stripped-down version of Keepon that could sell for around $30. BeatBots licensed the Keepon character and technical IP to UK-based toy manufacturer Wow! Stuff to create “My Keepon,” a toy version of the original robot, now called “Keepon Pro.”

In its touch mode, My Keepon responds to pokes, pats, and tickles with a rich variety of emotional movements and sounds. In its dance mode, it hears the beat in music or clapping and dances in synchronized rhythm. A percentage of every My Keepon sale goes to the distribution of Keepon Pro robots to researchers and practitioners in the field of autism. My Keepon entered stores (Toys “R” Us) at the end of 2011. The toy garnered an enormous amount of publicity and was featured on television, in magazines and newspapers around the world.

My Keepon is doing well enough that the company is working on the next version. Marek tells me they had to make a lot of changes to make it an affordable toy. He tells me, “Most people agree that it’s mechanically an impressive toy and that the beat detection works well.’ There are some negative reviews out there about the toy, and Marek thinks those relate to the perception that people thought they would get something like the $30K professional version. “It’s just impossible to deliver that for $30,” Marek explains. “But because they could see Keepon Pro on YouTube, expectations were rather high.”

Today, Marek and BeatBots call San Francisco home. In a warehouse space in Potrero Hill that he shares with Bot & Dolly, a spinoff frMarek and team working in SF studioom video production company Autofuss, Marek has a full prototyping and fabrication workshop. BeatBots now has two additional employees. The team is hard at work on several projects. One of the company’s more recent projects is Zingy, an “orange cousin of Keepon,” developed as a mascot for British-based EDF Energy, to promote their low-carbon electricity generation. Zingy is very popular in Britain, “analogous to the Geico gecko,” Marek tells me. BeatBots is working on whole new characters and new mechanisms, “additions to the BeatBots family,” Marek calls them.

BeatBots is funded through revenues. They have taken no outside investment, although Marek makes no predictions of future funding. Royalty streams from their existing licenses give the company the necessary resources for serious time to be creative and design new robots. And they are not abandoning the research and therapeutic market. Marek knows the dangers of not focusing like a laser, but he also knows that he can walk two paths of product development: mass market products and niche research products. For Marek, pursuing both avenues is the point:

“Its fun that we can shift between projects and have a few going in parallel. On the one hand, we’ll strive to make a robust mechanism as cheaply as possible. But, on the other hand, we love designing characters where cost isn’t a consideration. That’s a nice balancing act. We go back and forth between these two paradigms smoothly.”

BeatBots’ website states the company’s goals:

“We are working toward a future in which relationships with robots move beyond the utilitarian and antagonistic expectations of science fiction. A future in which dancing is the highest form of robotic expression. A future in which robots designed for therapy are equally appealing to the wider community. And a future in which popular enthusiasm for robots can be harnessed to support the design and distribution of tools to promote social welfare.”

Marek and his vision are all about taking robotics to the next level of art and expression. That he can make a business out of it is to be applauded. I am clapping… now. Go BeatBots!