Italy is developing a robot that allows you to be in a place “but without being there”

The robot and its operator, with the iFeel combination that allows it to be controlled. / IIT-Italian Institute of Technology

Science | robotics

The Italian Institute of Technology presented the iCub3, a humanoid robot that allows “to feel and move in a place without being there”. They proved it by visiting the Venice Biennale from Genoa

Julio Arrieta

In his novel “The Naked Sun” (1957), science fiction writer Isaac Asimov imagined a planet, Solaria, inhabited in the 17th century by a very small population of humans assisted by thousands of robots and who communicate between them through avatars. When they meet to chat, hang out, or even eat, Solarians don’t come in person. They do this without leaving their homes, while they send their technological doubles, in this case holograms, to meet. Imagine being able to visit the Venice Biennale without leaving your city, instead sending a robot through which you can see what is on display there. Or with which you can even kiss the guide. It’s not a scientific fantasy, it’s a practical reality with a robot, the iCub, developed by researchers from the Italian Institute of Technology (IIT).

“To feel and move in a place without being there, this is the main objective of the new advanced teleexistence system of the iCub robot, also called the iCub3 avatar system”, they explain from the IIT, based in Genoa. This iCub is a childish-looking humanoid robot, slightly larger than its previous versions, which weighed 33 kilos and was just over a meter tall. The iCub3 weighs 52 kilos and measures 1.25 meters. Created by this Italian technological center and a consortium made up of several European universities, it can walk, sit and even move on all fours. As a social robot, his face was designed to be able to replicate human facial expressions.

The development presented now is the result of research carried out by a team coordinated by Daniele Pucci, principal researcher of the Laboratory of Artificial and Mechanical Intelligence (AMI). Its goal is to obtain humanoid robots that can function as avatars, robotic bodies that act in place of humans without replacing them but allowing them to be where they cannot. For example visiting an exhibition, although many other applications are envisaged.

multiple applications

“We think this direction of research has enormous potential in many areas,” says Pucci. “On the one hand, the current pandemic has taught us that advanced telepresence systems can very quickly become necessary in different areas, such as healthcare and logistics. On the other hand, avatars could allow people with severe physical disabilities to work and perform tasks in the real world through the robotic body. It may be an evolution of rehabilitation and prosthetic technologies.”

The possibilities of the iCub3 were demonstrated during a tourist visit. A human operator who was in Genoa, at the headquarters of the IIT, “visited” the Italian pavilion during the 17th edition of the International Architecture Exhibition – La Biennale di Venezia, 300 kilometers away. In fact, it was this new version of the humanoid robot that roamed the exhibit. The first managed the second via a basic fiber optic connection, with only a few milliseconds of delay. “Researchers demonstrated that the system transmits locomotion, manipulation, voice, and facial expressions from the operator to the robotic avatar, while receiving visual, auditory, and tactile feedback,” according to IIT. In other words, the motionless “tourist” saw through the robot’s eyes, walked with his legs and touched with his hands, whose five fingers reproduce the same joints as humans. And he also heard and spoke through his avatar.

The robot crosses the Italian pavilion of the Venice Biennale. /

IIT-Italian Institute of Technology

During the demonstration, IIT’s iFeel system tracked the operator’s body movements, which were transferred to the iCub3 in Venice. The robot moved like its user in Genoa, including in its expressions, down to the “blinks and eye movements”, which the avatar “reproduces with great fidelity”. The user was able to smile, talk and shake hands with the guide in Venice. And, when he hugged the robot, the genoa operator felt it thanks to IIT’s iFeel suit. The guide and user were also able to speak through the android.

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“This is the first time that a system with all these features has been tested using a humanoid robot with legs for remote tourism, so that the human operator can feel and experience what is happening at where the avatar is.” This system is a prototype and can be developed “to be applied in different situations, from disaster response to healthcare, and also in the metaverse,” according to Pucci.

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