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Science

CeBIT opening features wide array of gadgetry

2011 marks the technology conference CeBIT's 41st year, and this year partner country Turkey is also offering up a few highlights, including one startup working on a new Facebook game.

A computer screen shows the Turkish flag at CeBIT

Turkey is bringing its best and brightest tech standouts to CeBIT

On Tuesday, the CeBIT trade show opened in the northern German city of Hanover. The fair showcases some of the hottest technology trends, like cloud computing and 3D televisions.

But deep in the back recesses of the convention halls were some new products at the forefront of the tech world, including talking cocktail shakers, a Turkish Facebook game and interactive robots.

One item that called out to Deutsche Welle, quite literally, was a cocktail shaker, equipped with a motion sensor that activated its voice to give play-by-play instructions for making a White Russian, which has vodka, coffee liqueur and milk.

One of the project's researchers and designers, Michael Schmitz, an intelligent user interface researcher with the German Research Center for Artificial Intelligence in Saarbrücken, said he's not trying to teach Germans how to make better cocktails, but rather, is exploring how to get everyday objects to interact with each other.

"The point of this is that in the future we are able to equip everyday objects that we use in our daily lives already with miniature electronics that are able to let these objects talk to each other and communicate with each other so that they can offer new services beyond the traditional object," he told Deutsche Welle.

An oddly shaped cocktail mixer on a show-bar at CeBIT

A cocktail shaker with personality

In other words, Schmitz explained, the shaker and the bottles of alcohol are equipped with motion sensors and radio frequency identification tags. That means the shaker and the bottles know when they're being picked up.

The shaker knows when the vodka gets close to the shaker and is being poured.

As Schmitz demonstrated by making a mock cocktail, the shaker continued, complimenting him on his shaking technique.

"Super! Good!" it said in a sultry voice.

Schmitz said that it may be years before electronics like these become standard in cocktail shakers and bottles of liquor.

But he pointed out that it may not be so far off before your toaster speaks to you to tell you that your toast is ready.

Partner country Turkey

Beyond talking appliances, one of the show's biggest attention-getters has been Turkey, the convention's partner country this year. Turkey's prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, was on hand with his counterpart, Angela Merkel, for the opening ceremony on Monday evening.

There were all kinds of Turkish companies at the convention, ranging from big ones like Turkcell and Turksat, to a small Turkish startup called Yogurt, and its online community, Yogurtistan.

The demo for Yogurtistan was a bit like the virtual online 3D community, Second Life. There are avatars, living environments, and a virtual currency, explained Güldeniz Akpolat, one of Yogurt's founders. But, she said, there's a key difference.

"For this kind of thing you need plugins," she told Deutsche Welle. "But here on Facebook you can reach them. And also it's a social network, it's not only a game."

In other words, Yogurtistan, which runs as an application on Facebook, seems very similar to other social networking games, like the ever popular MafiaWars and Farmville.

These games can be played for free, but have virtual currency that people can buy with real money as a way to get virtual items in the game. Currently, Farmville's parent company, Zynga, has an estimated value of billions of dollars - in other words, online Facebook gaming and virtual communities is big business.

For now, Akpolat said, the Facebook application is still in invite-only beta mode, and has around 1,000 users, mostly in Turkey.

Robots take center stage

But if there is one thing that clearly is taking off at this year's CeBIT, it's research into robotics. There are already a handful of robots present making waves. One of the most recognizable is called RoboThespian, the acting robot, which can recite lines from Star Wars or Shakespeare.

RoboThespian at CeBIT

RoboThespian can quote Hamlet or Obi Wan Kenobi

RoboThespian made the cover of CeBIT's magazine this year - this 65,000 euro ($90,000) robot was developed by a British company called Engineering Arts as an experiment in voice recognition and interface design.

"How do you spend most of your life communicating?" Will Jackson, the company's director, asked.

"You spend your life talking to other people. Talking to a laptop is kind of uncomfortable and weird," he said. "Talking to something that looks more like a person and talks like a person feels a bit more natural, so this is the idea behind the human communication robot."

But the things is, although RoboThespian is billed as the "acting robot," this machine can do much more than just recite Shakespeare.

Jackson said that his company has tried to combine the memory and retrieval storage capacity of an artificial intelligence in the same vein as Watson, a quiz game show winning computer in the US, with their robot's interface.

"One example we've done is a kind of wiki-robot," he said. "So you say, 'Robot, tell me about dolphins.' Basically he pulls up everything he can find on dolphins. We all know what information on the Net is like, it's not guaranteed to be true. But he'll qualify that and will say I'm getting this from Wikipedia."

CeBIT continues in Hanover through March 5, 2011.

Author: Cyrus Farivar
Editor: Stuart Tiffen

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