OK, I know what everyone is thinking... "What is this craziness? Inter-Galactic Love?" Well, let's just attribute it to a poor Japanese-English translation -- the title should have been left at just "Hinokio," which is a play on words from the old, classic film title "Pinocchio." In my opinion, this is the second-best robot movie of all time in terms of robot realism and "cool" humanoid robots (second to I-Robot), though it does posses some of those cheesy Japanese memes. The movie is about a Japanese boy who is unable to walk and thus uses a telepresence, humanoid robot to experience life; everything the robot sees, hears, and feels, so does the boy. The film has amazing graphics and cinematography, and the human-robot interaction techniques are very well thought-out. I'd recommend everyone grab a copy and watch it; it's definitely worth the time. Read further for more detailed information and some very cool images from the film.
Warning spoilers may follow...
This movie features a young, Japanese school child (probably 3rd-4th grade), named Satoru Iwamoto, who is left partially paralyzed after an automobile accident that also took the life of his mother. His father, who works at a robotics design company called Overlord Electronics (great name!), gives one of the haptic telepresence H603 robots to Satoru so that he may attend school like a “normal” boy. (This is a partial inspiration for the name Hinokio -- a play on words from Pinocchio, with the remainder being inspired by the hinoki cypress wood used to “save weight” in the robot's construction.) Satoru uses the robot in a telepresence fashion to attend school -- specifically so that he can interact at some level with his peers. The plot thickens when Satoru deceivingly adds a “sensory force feedback” module to his robot, which allows him to feel the robot's pain... When the robot is destroyed by a train, Satoru is thrust into a deep coma. To free him, Satoru's father and friends must come to his rescue...
There are many interesting HRI aspects to this movie. They can be broken up into three pseudo-distinct categories: robot attributes and capabilities, human-machine interface, and humans' responses to the robot.
First, let's discuss the technical aspects. The robot's body is said to be made of titanium alloy, plastic, and hinoki cypress. It is powered by “electricity” -- plugged in and deactivated at night and powered by a combustion generator when off-grid (such as on extended camping trips). While the robot's joints are said to be "fragile", they are quite adept -- perfect range-of-motion in the ankle and shoulder joints. The fingers are amazingly dexterous, capable of grasping just about any object and performing complex, time-sensitive tasks such as casting an open-face fishing reel. The robot maintains perfect balance, capable or running, performing kung-fu, etc (though he does fall once while running). The complexity of movement, dexterity, and balance all seem a bit disproportionate given an HMI (Human Machine Interface) comprised of a keyboard and a few joysticks and lacking haptic (at least initially). Clearly, some level of pseudo-autonomy must be employed!
As you can see from the facial image below, the robot lacks the ability to make expressive facial movements. The only concessions made for facial expression are eye articulation and zooming, which is emphasized several times when the robot 'stares' at a pretty girl. From the movie, it is apparent that the eyes are wide field-of-view and produce a 'fish-eye' view of the world to the user. The robot has directive audio capabilities with amplifiers that allow it to listen in on conversations from a distance (seemingly solving the external-microphone cocktail problem). It also possesses a speech synthesizer for “speaking,” and a GPS beacon for locating the robot. Despite all of these technical abilities, the robot is not waterproof (since it gets shorted out and requires fixing multiple times). This seems rather foolish for such an otherwise rugged robot...
Next, I'd like to discuss the Human-Machine Interface (or HMI), as seen in the image below. The system consists of a large, hemispherical immersive display for showing the large, “fish-eye” view produced by the robot's cameras. In general, the robot seems to be controlled in ~3 ways: by a keyboard (used to issue typed-in voice commands and key-mapped movements developed by the user), a set of joysticks for movement control, and a brain-machine interface (or BMI), which is only shown later in the story after sensory feedback is added.
There are several curiosities about the HMI that are not addressed in the story. One such curiosity is “why can't Satoru turn off the sensory feedback system?” Another curiosity is how the robot handles such complex tasks without the use of advanced haptic input methods -- of course, this is a subject of modern research in pseudo-autonomy. Despite the exaggerated capabilities of the robot, the HMI is comparable to some high-end, immersive video game systems, and thus may not be too far of a stretch for an immersive telepresence system.
Finally, humans' reactions to a robot (even under telepresence) were rather interesting. When the robot is first introduced, the other students can't believe their eyes (a sentiment I'd share if I saw such a robot show up to class)! Initially, everyone was speechless, and then began a torrent of questions:
“Does it work of it's own free will?”
“Can it fly?”
“Can it rocket punch?”
“Does it obey the 3 laws?”
“Who made it?”
told that there is a young boy (Satoru) controlling the robot, the
children name the robot (Hinokio) and almost never refer to its controller (Satoru). Initially, some of the children try to befriend
the robot, while others bully and pick on him (though these kids
later become his closest friends).
Midway through the movie, the kids learn that the H603 robots' purpose, in addition to health care robotics, is also military. This causes them to turn on the robot, ostracizing Satoru, and forcing the robot to leave the class. This is an interesting dichotomy: in Japan most advanced robotics efforts focus on health care, whereas advanced robotics in the United States is predominantly focused on military. I wonder if the reaction would be the same in the US...?
The robot is able to impress his peers by doing amazingly well on a set of drums; Satoru assigns a keyboard key to each physical drum, allowing him to “play” with ease -- much like playing a video game. This is a very cool way of abstracting the difficult drumming movements. Satoru also uses the robot to steal for his friends, protect them with kung-fu, and go fishing. All of these things endear the other students to the robot. In fact, near the movie's end, many of the kids think of the robot as just "one of them."
Despite having an air of cheesy Japanese memes, this is one of the best robotics movies of all time -- though a bit obscure (its quite difficult to locate a permanent supplier for purchase, though Ebay usually has a few available). I've seen it many times and have shown it to my lab. I think it very nicely demonstrates roboticists' desires and the challenges they must overcome to make robots more accepted. I believe that every roboticist should watch this movie; after-all, science fiction can be a great inspiration!