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Boffins give chatty robots a creepy human face

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Boffins from Germany and Japan have teamed up to create a human-like face for robots.

It's also a fairly creepy-looking head on a stick. The researchers have dubbed it Mask-bot.

Robotics wizards from Technische Universitat Munchen, along with Japanese scientists, used a projector to beam the 3D image of a human face onto the back of a plastic mask. They then use a computer to control voice and facial expressions to make it seem more lifelike.

Mask-bot can reproduce content typed on a keyboard or 'listen' and make the best answer it has based on a fixed programming sequence.

Have a look at it chatting in English and Japanese below:

While other scientists have come up with 3D heads before, they weren't as realistic as Mask-bot, according to the research, because Mask-bot can be viewed from various angles and doesn't look as cartoony as other heads.

To give the robot head the right facial expressions, researcher Dr Takaaki Kuratate developed a "talking head animation engine", where a computer runs through lots of footage of people talking collected by a motion capture system and chooses an expression based on the phoneme, or sound, that is being said.

The boffins hope the technology will be used to give robots in the future a human face, but say "it may well soon be used to create avatars for participants in video conferences". Whether anyone would want to talk to a plastic-head, computer-generated version of their workmates instead of the person themselves on a video link remains to be seen.

Kuratate also said the system could "soon" be used to keep old people company, though the prototype – complete with oddly coloured scarf – is more likely to give your gran a heart attack than be her new best friend. ®

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