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Science

CeBIT robots videoconference, play soccer and more

In CEBIT's Lab area, engineers are showcasing the latest in business robots, sporty robots and others that can be controlled by the human mind.

A robot with a human videoconferencing on the monitor that is its head

Robots projecting human presence were on hand at CeBIT

Ever since the term "robot" was coined by a Czech author in a 1920 play, these marvelous machines have become a mainstay of science fiction.

While robotics has advanced in recent decades, automating everything from factory work to vacuuming, CeBIT's lab section has been showcasing the cutting edge of robotics, showing off around six different types of robot, including singing robots and robots that could work in supermarkets after hours to take inventories of stock.

One of the CeBIT's biggest attention-getters has been a new business-oriented tele-presence robot, called Jazz.

This one-meter tall robot, built by Gostai, a French company, is designed mainly for companies that have remote employees or who want even more interactivity for their video conferencing.

After all, because it's a robot, the person controlling the robot is able not only to speak, but to drive it via the Internet, so it can move around an office.

The robot has a sort of conical shape, with a wheeled base, a thin torso, no arms, and its head is a monitor

But Segolene Roche, a Gostai spokesperson, said that workers don't need to worry if talking to a robot in your office feels a bit strange.

A robot 'talks' to two people on a sofa

'You feel like you're talking to the robot, but it's really your robot avatar in disguise'

"Actually you're talking to the person through the robot - you do the talking," she said, speaking through the robot.

"You use a mic and you use headphones as well and you can hear and talk through the robot. The one on the screen features your image. You feel like you're talking to the robot, but it's really your robot avatar in disguise."

One Jazz robot costs 7,900 euros ($11,000) without a screen, and 8,900 ($12,300) euros with a screen. So far, Roche said the company has only sold seven robots since it debuted in January.

But she admitted that it may be more than just the price that is off-putting for some potential customers.

"The bigger problem is acceptance," she said. "Robots are really big - this one is one meter tall - but big robots are threatening for most people."

Soccer-playing robots

This summer, teams from Germany and around the world will compete in the annual Robocup tournament, at which robots autonomously play soccer.

At CeBIT this year, two different German teams showed off their pint-sized robots to the public, complete with a miniature goal scaled down to size for a 50 centimeter (1.64 feet) humanoid, or human-like robot. The robot has two video lenses, giving it stereo vision to be able to track the ball, and miniature arms and legs.

A robot kicks an orange ball

RoboCup robots will compete for the championship this summer in Turkey

"In 2050, the Robocup Federation has the goal of being able not only to compete but to win against human champions," explained Jan Carstensen, a researcher at the Ostfalia University of Applied Sciences, and an engineer on the WF Wolves Robocup team.

He said that his team has had previous success in the so-called "mixed-reality" division, with even smaller, eight cubic centimeter robots moving around a flat horizontal screen with a virtual ball.

"We are quite new, so we're working on walking, standing up, localization and stuff like that," he said. "At some point we hope to have this platform so stable or stable enough and take the artificial intelligence that we developed in the mixed reality league and implant it into the humanoids."

Controlling robots with your mind

But what might be even more threatening than video-conferencing robots rolling around the office, or robots playing soccer at CeBIT is robots controlled simply by thought.

Engineers at the University of Bremen demonstrated their work on brain computer interface systems that allow people to seemingly control simple robots with their mind.

"This is exactly the typical error," cautioned Ivan Volosyak, a Bremen research fellow. "We are not able to read your mind or read your thoughts."

He said that the ultimate goal of their project is to build a system that allows disabled people, like paraplegics or tetraplegics to control robots using only their mind, that could help them in their everyday lives.

A man tries to control a pinball machine using brainwaves

Mind control is a popular subject at CeBIT as in this photo from 2010

That could eventually include more complicated robots that could retrieve or handle objects. But for now, the Bremen team is testing this simple version on willing volunteers, including this reporter.

In order to control the small, simple, circular robot, about the size of a hockey puck, volunteers need to wear a special electrogram (EG) cap with particular wires that transmit brain signals to a computer.

Once seated at a card table upon which the robot sits, Volosyak instructed the volunteer to gaze at the four blinking lights mounted directly in front, at the edge of the table.

Each light represents a different direction: turn to the left, turn to the right, move forward and move backward. Simply by staring at the particular light for the direction one wanted, the robot disc would advance in that direction.

"The thing is we're stimulating your brain with visual stimuli which are in front of you, and then we will be able to classify the standard normal EG activity and the activity which is measured during the stimulated phase," Volosyak explained.

In other words, when the brain focuses on a particular frequency, or pattern, of blinking, that creates a unique brainwave pattern. Then, the computer matches that particular pattern to a certain robotic motion, such as forward movement.

However, while simply staring at blinking lights seems easy enough, this reporter barely managed to move the circle robot out of the starting area, well away from the endpoint.

In other words, it's one small step for man, and one rather unresponsive, clumsy move for robotics.

Author: Cyrus Farivar

Editor: Stuart Tiffen

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