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FROM HIGH TECH TO MALL TECH

High Tech: Robotics
Mall Tech: Boxing robots

Researchers at the MIT Media Lab are working on ways to let robots interact emotionally with humans. But in the Mall at Chestnut Hill, humans already are interacting emotionally with robots.

 

A small crowd of shoppers gathers around a pair of bright red and blue Boxing Robots in the window of the Sharper Image, as husband and wife Roger and Tsui Ong of Acton play around with the remotes. The muscle-bound bots pummel each other with hooks, jabs, crosses, and uppercuts, as lights flash to tally the hits.

The Ongs are shopping for a gift for the 9-year-old son of a friend. ``It's a boy,'' Tsui Ong explained. ``He will really like it.''

And while the boxing robots use wireless controls, light-emitting diodes, and artificial intelligence pioneered in labs for automotive or industrial applications, the big attraction for the Ongs is the $39.95 price. ``It's come down,'' said Roger Ong. ``Forty dollars for two is a magnet.''

A couple of aisles down, a sales clerk is showing off the latest model of iRobot's Roomba floor vacuum cleaner, listed at $249.95, complete with remote control, motion sensors, spot cleaner, and two ``virtual wall'' units that emit infrared beams to contain the Roomba to a specific area.

Holding another wireless remote the size of a boombox, a colleague is directing RoboScout, a 2-foot-high, egg-shaped robot with bulging pink eyes, out the door into the mall and back. ``Backing, backing,'' the $399.95 robot warns in a high-pitched synthetic voice. RoboScout also will record a 15-second memo and bring you drinks.

Just a few miles away, across the Charles River, the Media Lab's Robotic Life Group is creating the robots of the future: Kismet, a robotic head that changes expressions in response to human visual and voice cues; and, Leonardo, a fuzzy-eared robot that makes eye contact and twitches when his ears are tickled.

``My group is currently focusing on the issue of building expressive and life-like robots,'' said Cynthia Breazeal, director of the Robotic Life Group. Breazeal describes her robots as ``intelligent and capable in their interactions with humans'' and ``natural and intuitive to communicate with and engaging for humans to interact with.''

Some of the technologies the group is exploring could be applied within five years to develop ``animatronics'' - a mix of electronics and animation to create robotic entertainers for a Hollywood collaborator, Stan Winston Studio - or to build robotic helpers for the home healthcare field, especially in countries, like Japan, facing labor shortages.

``Many exciting future applications for robots require them to play a long-term role in people's daily lives,'' Breazeal said. ``Someday robots will be helpers for the elderly, teammates that can work cooperatively with people. ... My group addresses issues of social competence and long-term human-robot relationships.''

As for the mall robots that fetch drinks or battle one another for the entertainment of today's shoppers, Breazel said gamely, ``I'm afraid that I haven't played with them or seen them.''

Robert Weisman can be reached at weisman@globe.com.

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