r2d2 branded robot

On the Potential for Branded Robots

Last year I wrote about these awesome fighting robots from Japan, where  I asked this question:

“I am very interested in at least progressing research into the potential for branded robotics, androids & cybernetics if any readers have thoughts?”

I received an equally awesome response from one Pius Agius, who challenged me on my Western predilection to see robots fighting rather than fulfilling a higher place in society. I reproduce the key lines of our dialogue here:

“Because [the Japanese] accept robots as part of their daily lives more than a majority of those living in the west does not mean we in the so called west cannot build great machines […] We can make better use of our creations than place them in roman like battles. What does that say about us as a civilization?? Let us build machines that can develop and reach their full potential.”

Stunned to have stimulated such a well-considered response, in answer I cited a company that I think are making some great stuff in this field – Festo:

“I think their design-led approach is not only creating some very useful mechanisms, but can potentially change the way we in the West perceive robotics as part of everyday life.”

Check them out if you like – Festo do great stuff.

Meanwhile, I went to see what I could find out about the guy who’d crashed in with his well-considered comment. I found Pius dwelling on the vibrant community pages of Grandroids, a Ning-based social network full of heavyweight discussion on robotics. Members spoke of a ‘Steve Grand’ as the patriarch of their micro-culture. I’m coming back to this…

I don’t think I’ve mentioned this before, but I grew up surrounded by members of the Games Industry in Cambridge. My father was Director of Development at Millennium Interactive, which became Cyberlife, then Creature Labs, and then Gameware Development.

The common thread between these companies was a breakthrough series of Artificial Life games called Creatures. Cyberlife was created to commercialise the work of this very same Steve Grand, where together with a team of artists and programmers they went about developing the Creatures series.

Though artificial life simulators are now a well-established genre (Tamagotchi; Sims; EyePet), the series was first to reach critical and commercial acclaim. Players would take on the role of keepers to cutesy ‘Norns’. But these were no ordinary creations, and in the 90’s Creatures was far ahead of its time.

These creatures would learn and grow, each with their own neural network, and were motivated to survive, and eventually breed in order to pass on their digital genotype. They had the ability to adapt and evolve, iterating towards an understanding of and harmony with their environment.

Years later, Steve is well-established as the leading thinker in AI and robotics. As well as mounds of academic submissions, he’d been running a project to build a series of intelligent robots for rent, as crowd pullers in public events and trade shows. His first robot was a five foot tall humanoid female called Grace, I discovered.

Because I’d found myself on his site, and because I know the guy, I thought I’d go to Steve to ask my initial question once more:

Hello Steve,
This is Tom Saunter here, Ian’s son.

A member of this very network recently commented on my blog, and one Google later I found myself here. With such a vibrant community there’s so much to digest, so I thought I’d go straight to the source…

Part of my job these days is to seek out emerging technologies for advertising purposes, and now that I’ve read about your Grandroids project I am interested to hear your thoughts on how you feel robotics could be of benefit to brands and, in turn, to consumers.

Besides increased traffic to conference booths, what part do you feel your robots might reasonably play when faced with a brief to change the buying behaviours of the general public?

There’s got to be a great piece of research in there.
Do you know anyone who can help me with an answer?

All the best,
Tom

The response, and get ready for it, was this phenomenal piece of prose:

[…] So, um, how might robots like Grace change buying behaviours? God knows! They could certainly have an impact on brand perception, and I suspect that’s a double-edged sword. If the robot is suitably impressive then it improves the company’s image, but if it’s a bit naff then at best it’s just a novelty to draw crowds that the client would then have to secure by other means, and at worst it damages the client’s image.

For instance Asimo has done wonders for Honda’s public image (not in terms of AI, particularly, just general technology), but some other Japanese robots have fared less well, especially those that fall into the Valley of the Uncanny. In other words, they’re lifelike enough to trigger the circuits in our brains that detect things that “aren’t quite right” in other people (signs that we’re being deceived or threatened, say), but they’re not lifelike enough to actually pass the test, so we find them disconcerting. 3D computer games frequently suffer from the same problem, as I’m sure you know, and years ago I predicted that as 3D graphics got better, the demands on intelligent behaviour for game characters would grow intense.

Anyway, I’ve gone off on a tangent. It was a big factor in our design for Grace, though. We deliberately made her look like a robot and didn’t give her human-like skin, etc. Instead I relied on psychological cues of sexiness and lifelikeness that didn’t risk us falling into the Valley of the Uncanny. My point is, you have to get the psychology right or you won’t produce the positive associations in people’s minds that your client needs. The consumers aren’t necessarily going to be able to articulate these things, so they’ll feel bad without knowing why, and you could damage the brand rather than enhance it. I felt I had enough unique experience in designing artificial lifeforms to stay on the safe side of that boundary, though.

One of the things I was keen to achieve was understatement. There are various companies renting out “robots” as crowd pullers (although really they’re just animatronics or remote controlled) and they go for a big noisy splash – flashing lights, big press releases, comedy routines, etc. I wanted Grace to just sit there at the entrance to a booth and be as much like a normal sales girl as possible. I wanted people to do a double-take and then be intrigued. Let them discover it for themselves. It’s a bit like knowing you’ve just been passed by a really powerful motorcycle because you didn’t hear it coming. I think if you do something like this with a fanfare then people will be primed to find something wrong with it, but if you go for the soft sell then they’ll be supportive and impressed. When I wrote Creatures all those centuries ago, my prime principle was that I shouldn’t try to fool people into thinking norns were alive – I should really try my best to make them alive. If people knew I was being honest and doing my best then they’d be on my side, and I think the same is true here. Undersell the robot and you make their company look good by association, as if there’s a lot more under the hood of their products than they’re letting on.

There are also many other kinds of subliminal association that can work for you or against you depending on the client and your ability to tap into the right psychological triggers. I based the look of Grace on the robots Chris Cunningham designed for the video to go with Bjork’s “All is full of love”, because I think he got a lot of those triggers just right – especially the tension between femininity and technology. It’s a bit like designing the iPod – the right curves and the bits you leave out are so important. And with real robots you have to get the behaviour right too, which is a big subject all by itself. Almost all current robots fail miserably in that regard, especially by being too predictable and not subtle enough.

But I don’t think I’m really answering your question, am I? Sorry. Advertising and marketing aren’t my field (I have quite enough fields without adding any more). I don’t really know of anyone who knows about this stuff. One of our “competitors” in New York has a site where they talk quite a bit about the marketing potential of their remote-controlled “robots”, but I can’t for the life of me remember the name of the company (so maybe their advice doesn’t work!).

Looks like it’s down to you to figure it out…

There it is then. The planet’s preeminent ALife & robotics academic, whom has been referred to by Richard Dawkins as “the creator of what I think is the nearest approach to artificial life so far”, is leaving it up to us to answer the big questions:

  • What is the potential for branded robots?
  • Will they ever form part of a marketing strategy?
  • Will we ever allow robots a part in everyday life?

And so, I ask again, dear reader, what do you think?

Let me know in the comments.

Published by

Tom Saunter

I like to think about the media, technology, pop-culture & the future. When not blogging, I tweet @freedimensional & work @MediaComUK. Feel free to visit my Personal Bio to learn more about me.

  • Amazing post Tom, one of your (many) best!
    I am not sure if I have an answer on if and how we could use robots for marketing and advertising purposes, although my feeling is that, even if we do, the trend will wear off fairly quickly due to the costs of employing such technology as well as the fact that the novice of the trend will quickly wear off.
    An area where robots could potentially play a role is in driving people to reach new levels in their expertise, promoting these field of expertise. Clearly I am referring to the Casparov vs Deep Blue chess game. This was of course a computer, built to beat the best chess player in the world, a match that massively raised the profile of chess.
    Maybe there is a role in the advertising of technological products. Or, instinctively, my gut feeling tells me that there even might be a role in the advertising on eco efficiency products, but I cannot justify this feeling.

    And as I am reading your post once more, the more I am starting to believe that robots will one day be used for marketing and advertising purposes. All it takes for the unimaginable to become a reality is for someone to question and explore the possibilities. You have questioned them and I am really interested in reading more from your experiences in exploring them too.

  • Amazing post Tom, one of your (many) best!
    I am not sure if I have an answer on if and how we could use robots for marketing and advertising purposes, although my feeling is that, even if we do, the trend will wear off fairly quickly due to the costs of employing such technology as well as the fact that the novice of the trend will quickly wear off.
    An area where robots could potentially play a role is in driving people to reach new levels in their expertise, promoting these field of expertise. Clearly I am referring to the Casparov vs Deep Blue chess game. This was of course a computer, built to beat the best chess player in the world, a match that massively raised the profile of chess.
    Maybe there is a role in the advertising of technological products. Or, instinctively, my gut feeling tells me that there even might be a role in the advertising on eco efficiency products, but I cannot justify this feeling.

    And as I am reading your post once more, the more I am starting to believe that robots will one day be used for marketing and advertising purposes. All it takes for the unimaginable to become a reality is for someone to question and explore the possibilities. You have questioned them and I am really interested in reading more from your experiences in exploring them too.

  • Very nice post Tom. Glad to see you are moving in estemeed circles. Branded robots are certainly an interesting thought, but given the minimal amount of contact with consumers and the high expense of producing even just one of these bots, you have to wonder as to whether they become cost prohibitive. For me, most companies would be wanting a large amount of return in terms of PR coverage, customer contact, and other potential branding that could therefore make this unacheivable (currently).

    However, the longer-term prospects for robot based advertising ( I do wonder when we will see the first robotic bank teller – they can’t be any worse than the real ones) are potentially very large. One trigger for me, will be bots within Google Wave, and companies seeing how they can use these to intelligentally give advice and lead consumers thinking.

    With regards to the everyday life. Again, “things” only become part of everyday life when those in everyday life can afford them. Apologies for being the pessimistic cost monkey, but until the costs become really low then consumers aren’t going to able to afford a service robot.. which I think is probably the first reason for getting one.

    Love it though Thomas.

  • Very nice post Tom. Glad to see you are moving in estemeed circles. Branded robots are certainly an interesting thought, but given the minimal amount of contact with consumers and the high expense of producing even just one of these bots, you have to wonder as to whether they become cost prohibitive. For me, most companies would be wanting a large amount of return in terms of PR coverage, customer contact, and other potential branding that could therefore make this unacheivable (currently).

    However, the longer-term prospects for robot based advertising ( I do wonder when we will see the first robotic bank teller – they can’t be any worse than the real ones) are potentially very large. One trigger for me, will be bots within Google Wave, and companies seeing how they can use these to intelligentally give advice and lead consumers thinking.

    With regards to the everyday life. Again, “things” only become part of everyday life when those in everyday life can afford them. Apologies for being the pessimistic cost monkey, but until the costs become really low then consumers aren’t going to able to afford a service robot.. which I think is probably the first reason for getting one.

    Love it though Thomas.

  • Zoe

    Right now, I can’t think of anything other than vacuum cleaners when I think of robots being a part of our everyday life. The fact is that more than 50m Euros are spent every year only in Europe for research projects with the hope of opening up new markets for service and industrial robots. And robots – as modern industrial arms – are part of the assembly line since the 80s. They surely define a brand, an idea: Hard labour. And it’s not rarely that we read about men abusing androids and automata in Science Fiction. We’re many years away from fully functioning artificial forms of living but we have been reading about their characteristics, feelings and aspirations in this particular branch of literature since 1942. We all know, one day they will fight for their freedom. The reason we know that, is because we are fascinated by it. From this sort narrative, you can understand, robots in literature are images of ourselves, just like man is an image of God. So, we definitely have a couple of things right: We emotionally connect to robots and robots motivate us. So, there must be a potential for branded robots, beyond their future reasonable uses (as stewards or cleaners or workers). Robots can be speakers for safety and environmental issues, they can be actors (Arnold Swarzenegger is one) and children TV hosts and I believe right now you could have an “Asimo” for Nike, that would run in a marathon to promote healthy living, if there isn’t one Robot that did that already.

    Creatures was revolutionary and much praised. I remember the game series. 🙂 Your article was inspiring. Thank you. 🙂

  • Zoe

    Right now, I can’t think of anything other than vacuum cleaners when I think of robots being a part of our everyday life. The fact is that more than 50m Euros are spent every year only in Europe for research projects with the hope of opening up new markets for service and industrial robots. And robots – as modern industrial arms – are part of the assembly line since the 80s. They surely define a brand, an idea: Hard labour. And it’s not rarely that we read about men abusing androids and automata in Science Fiction. We’re many years away from fully functioning artificial forms of living but we have been reading about their characteristics, feelings and aspirations in this particular branch of literature since 1942. We all know, one day they will fight for their freedom. The reason we know that, is because we are fascinated by it. From this sort narrative, you can understand, robots in literature are images of ourselves, just like man is an image of God. So, we definitely have a couple of things right: We emotionally connect to robots and robots motivate us. So, there must be a potential for branded robots, beyond their future reasonable uses (as stewards or cleaners or workers). Robots can be speakers for safety and environmental issues, they can be actors (Arnold Swarzenegger is one) and children TV hosts and I believe right now you could have an “Asimo” for Nike, that would run in a marathon to promote healthy living, if there isn’t one Robot that did that already.

    Creatures was revolutionary and much praised. I remember the game series. 🙂 Your article was inspiring. Thank you. 🙂

  • Tom

    Steve’s comments about brand perception reminded me of this.

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CAI9490QmeQ

    Honda weren’t the first to associate their brand with cutting-edge production methods (or indeed robots).

  • Tom

    Steve’s comments about brand perception reminded me of this.

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CAI9490QmeQ

    Honda weren’t the first to associate their brand with cutting-edge production methods (or indeed robots).

  • Pius Agius

    Hello Tom

    I am so glad you found my response to fighting robots interesting. I did not want to come across as a heavy. It is just that I have been building robots for decades and I have formed some definite opinions about how they are to be used. Granted I work alone in my den and the world seems to be going another way. However on this robots for war or destruction I am opposed.
    It is to bad that Grandoids is no longer a website that is active. I enjoyed it but the people in charge found they could not keep it up. Some of us have migrated to Custom Solutions , however it seems that there is no one looking at it. As such I have begun a blog but there is no stampede in that direction as of yet.
    It was nice to see your comment. It was gracious and kind.

    Take Care

    Pius

  • Fascinating discussion. I got here via a post from Russell Davies (http://russelldavies.typepad.com/planning/2011/02/branded-robots.html) and am glad I followed his link. These days, it’s rare to experience that “wow, how did I not know about this site” feeling that I got as I read your post. So, thank you for that!

    I appreciated Steve’s comment about how Asimo has been a successful “PR Person” for Honda. I hadn’t considered it in that way, but know exactly how that has had an effect on me. I even remember the first Asimo advertisement I saw years and years ago in WIRED magazine — the one that showed Asimo standing with its human family in front of their suburban home. It seemed about as futuristic as a company could be without looking foolish.

    Today, I think the prospects for branded robotics are quite good, though the robots themselves are likely to be far less anthropomorphic. They’re much more likely to be the kind of robot that the Roomba is: a focused and quasi-autonomous machine. The machine’s ability to learn, if unfocused by set routines or a limited scope, can fall within that “uncanny valley” category of behavior that is likely to make anyone nervous (as in, I bought it to vacuum my floors but now it watches me while I sleep). In fact, the more anthropormorphic, the more likely we are to refer to the robot with pronouns (he/she) and feel threatened by it’s ability to learn anything more than that which we intended it to do.

    But there are plenty of other appliances that I think are likely to become robotic in the next decade or so. For instance, a washing machine that, by analyzing its own contents (your clothes), can learn your routines, preferred settings, etc. and make laundry a much more automated experience. If you accidentally tossed in a dry-clean only garment, it would separate it for you and place it in a protected compartment while the rest of the load is washed. That kind of thing. But it would learn your wardrobe and adjust its operations more and more to suit you over time. Plenty of other devices could be altered similarly to make them just a bit more “intelligent” and therefore offer a bit more convenience to you.

    Of course, these new “robotic” appliances will ask somethign of us in return. If GE makes a washing machine like the one I described, they’d certainly benefit from the data it could collect. When do most people do laundry? How large is the average load? What kinds of garments actually wear down the machine more? How much water and electricity are these machines actually using? What are the real conditions under which they’re being used? What might this data enable industrial designers to do to make their appliances more efficient, more valuable? Each washing machine of this type could be sending data back, in real time, to GE over the web. And GE could share that data with the customer, who might be surprised to find that they typically do laundry at 9pm on Wednesdays.

    As for the privacy issues around this, yes, there are some. But surely no more than the ones we already negotiate when we decide to accept the exchange that Google offers for free email, or Facebook offers for a snazzy communication and social media tool. But that’s another debate…

  • Pius

    I got up this morning and has been my habit I check my emails. I have several because I have Google alerts to help me keep track of developments around the world. Iwonder if you could call that artificial help. Unfortunately I picked the word android and all I got were alerts about phones!! I thought android meant human looking robot.
    That is the reason why even today in this marvelous 21st century I feel that robots that are created as opposed to being manufactured, will tend to be similar to the persons doing the creation. Over the decades I have found that actual robots , artifacts that act in the real world have shown this trait. Also those that build them have thought in great depth about what they are doing.

    Take care

    Pius