How can we communicate nonverbal signals without falling into the uncanny valley?
“Text communication is very limited, and so is normal video conferencing. But with the telenoid, you can actually feel the presence of another person.”
Those were the words with which Prof. Hiroshi Ishiguro of Osaka University unveiled his latest android, the R1 Telenoid. Prof. Ishiguro is known for his work in robotics and his interest in bridging the gap between humans and machines. His latest focus attempts to address the lack of nonverbal signals in digital and long-distance communications by replacing emoticons and other stand-in representations.
It is for this reason that many pieces of fiction include segments written in the third-person. It’s sometimes to impossible to convey everything going on in a story without describing the various physical actions and reactions that characters go through. Thus Prof. Ishiguro poses an excellent question: if we can already transmit audio and video signals, who’s to say that we can’t transmit body language?
Given the conceptual prompt, Prof. Ishiguro’s R1 Telenoid falls short of its desired function. His androids typically suffer from appearing unnerving and uncanny, but the R1 Telenoid fails to mimic the main instrument of body language: the body itself.
Video conferencing typically presents a person’s face but ignores other aspects such as folded arms, slouching, antsy feet, hand gestures, confident shoulders, etc. The R1 Telenoid fails to capitalize on the video camera’s faults by focusing on facial recognition (the camera’s strong point) instead of posture recognition. To make matters worse, the Telenoid has vestigial arms and pointy torso that flex inelegantly, which give the impression that one is talking to a primitive ghost.
Prof. Ishiguro’s design is further compromised by the fact that the R1 Telenoid is functionally an enhanced video conferencing system. The BBC states that “Ishiguro’s system uses a motion-tracking webcam to transmit your voice, facial expressions and head movements to the Telenoid”.
Does this mean that Prof. Ishiguro’s concept has failed? For the time being perhaps. There is still genuine merit in being able to communicate nonverbal signals long distance but a more conventional, cheaper, and less creepy solution may be called for.