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Toys 'R' Us bets on dancing robot for holidays

As robots go, My Keepon appears underwhelming. It stands about 10 inches high and looks like two tennis balls fused together.
Image: Keepon
In early 2007, Keepon's invetor posted a video of the robot dancing to indie rock. The video turned into an Internet sensationVia Businessweek
/ Source: Business Week

As robots go, My Keepon appears underwhelming. It stands about 10 inches high and looks like two tennis balls fused together. It has no arms, no antennae, and no laser beams. What it does have is a wicked sense of rhythm. Fire up the stereo and My Keepon starts grinding away, spinning its torso and thumping its head to the beat.

My Keepon also has the backing of one of the world’s largest toy stores, Toys “R” Us, which has the exclusive U.S. rights to sell the robot, originally a therapeutic tool for autistic children. The retailer will begin lining the shelves with My Keepons in late October, priming it to be the big holiday hit. By Christmas, if the bet pays off, My Keepon’s career arc will look a lot like Dr. Phil’s: from therapist to globally recognizable celebrity. “When you see it rocking out, you just can’t help but love it,” says Richard Barry, a vice-president at Toys “R” Us.

Keepon’s story begins about seven years ago with Hideki Kozima, a Japanese expert in artificial intelligence and robotics at the School of Project Design at Miyagi University. Kozima theorized that an emotive robot could help autistic children, who can be overwhelmed in face-to-face interactions, by reducing the complexities of communication to a few simple gestures. A child pats the robot on the head. It responds with a playful bob. The child talks to the robot. It turns to face him and nods.

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To test his idea, Kozima created Keepon, a fuzzy, mouthless robot packed with $30,000 worth of machinery, sensors, and computer chips. (The name is a portmanteau of the Japanese word for yellow, kiiroi, and the onomatopoeia pon for bounce.) In clinical use, a researcher in an observation room controls Keepon wirelessly, dictating its interactions with children. While testing the gizmo in day-care centers, Kozima found that autistic children made more eye contact with the robot than they did with people. Behaviors they rarely expressed toward humans, like touching and nurturing, became more commonplace. Since then dozens of research centers and universities have bought the pricey bot for therapeutic work. “Using a robot can be a real ice breaker for children and clinicians,” says Anjana N. Bhat, a researcher at the University of Connecticut’s Neag School of Education, who is conducting clinical trials with robots and autistic children.

The research caught the attention of Dr. Marek Michalowski, a Polish-American robotics expert with a background in computer science and psychology. Michalowski is fascinated by the complexity of the gestures humans use to communicate, and wondered if a robot like Keepon could reproduce them. “You could have a future robot that nods at the appropriate tempo when you order it to make a sandwich,” he says. Michalowski went to Japan to work at Kozima’s lab in 2006, and began teaching Keepon that most universal of gestures: dancing. He wrote software so that Keepon would bob its head along to fast tracks and swoon during slow dance numbers.

In early 2007, Michalowski put together a video of Keepon dancing to "I Turn My Camera On" by the indie rock band Spoon. The little yellow blob gave its all for the production, rocking back and forth, turning, squishing, and stretching. The video turned into an Internet sensation, with over 2.6 million plays on YouTube. Among the viewers were toy makers interested in creating a consumer version. Last year, Michalowski and Kozima decided to team up with WOW! Stuff, a British gadget and toy maker, which agreed to dedicate a portion of sales to autism research.

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Richard North, WOW! Stuff’s floppy haired managing director, explains that the company scours the world for good ideas and then has its own team of engineers refine the products. In this case, refining Keepon meant writing new software to govern the bots’ interactions with people, and replacing a lot of the handmade machinery with off-the-shelf parts. For example, WOW! Stuff’s version, renamed My Keepon, uses touch and sound sensors to detect a nearby human instead of cameras behind the eyes. “There were severe cost constraints, but we had to figure out ways to add variation and personality and avoid being a gimmick,” says North.

My Keepon has two modes: touch and dance. In touch mode, the robot responds to pats with a range of gestures, such as turning, wiggling, or sneezing. Part of the fun comes from uncovering My Keepon’s reactions. Hit it on the head six times, for instance, and it will pop up and down six times while emitting a variety of R2-D2-like beeps and boops. There’s a bit of mystery to dance mode, too. A microphone in My Keepon’s nose listens to a song — or even a rhythm hummed or whistled — and runs the tempo and amplitude through an algorithm that introduces some randomization. Fire up a country hit and watch My Keepon sashay to the beat. Play the same song again, and My Keepon will do a different dance, while still matching the rhythm and tempo.

It’s that focus on the unexpected that Michalowski says will separate My Keepon from other toys that “lose their novelty once someone has gone through their range of responses.” My Keepon can remember sequences of touches and notices when it’s been ignored. It will tweak its behavior based on this history, wiggling in different ways and letting out an occasional cry for attention. The toy’s backers pitch My Keepon as a blank slate that could appeal to kids and adults. “You might see Keepon as pensive or sad, maybe whatever you are feeling,” Michalowski says. North, of course, is readying a line of accessories, like Western outfits, to let people customize the bot to their liking.

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Toys “R” Us has plans to put hi-tech marketing displays in its stores and launch a television ad campaign. Though the final price isn’t set yet, My Keepon will sell for less than $50. “It will have a huge presence,” says Barry.

Michalowski’s big hope is that the proceeds from My Keepon will help cover the costs of new therapeutic units, so additional autism research can be conducted. He and North also plan to offer robotics hobbyists the tools to program My Keepon themselves, giving it moves undreamt of by its creators. “We expect kids and adults to personalize not just on the outside but on the inside too,” says North.

The bottom line: Toys “R” Us plans a big marketing push this fall for My Keepon, which will sell for less than $50 — outfits and accessories not included.