UB Tech has developed a variety of humanoid robots reflecting its experience and focus on humanizing their robots, viewing them as companions or helpers. To that end they have created a very approachable humanoid bot they call the Alpha Mini. The ultimate purpose for the Alpha Mini is to be a companion – an active part of your daily activities. If you think about what that requires, then the complexity and design decisions make a lot of sense. Some of the best features are more subtle, giving it a softer, more approachable humanistic personality.
Key among those features is a pair of LCD eyes. The ability to roll eyes around, laugh, squint, or change expressions during a dance all contribute to this sense of emotional range. Another very clever and subtle feature is how the designers have developed the ankle movement. The feet move almost as it they are on a ball joint, which allows Alpha Mini to tilt its body right-to-left or forward-and-back. It doesn’t sound like much of an innovation, but it allows for slide moves, toe-tapping to some music, and even balancing on one leg while doing karate moves. It results in a kind of rolling gait that is much more natural than a conventional up-down, left-right foot movement that you get from a standard ankle joint. Which adds a degree of softness and realism to those movements.
Outside of the mechanics of the design, Alpha Mini contains a 13MP camera, facial recognition, and an IR time-of-flight collision avoidance system. With some clever programming you could throw a party and have Alpha Mini visit everyone at the party, capture their facial landmarks, name and phone number. I’ll leave it up to you if you think that’s a good thing or a bad thing.
Programming Alpha Mini could not be easier. Once you have the Alpha Mini app downloaded on your phone (android operating system) you can program it using a series of action blocks from the Workspace area. Just plug a series of actions in successive rows to build up a complete series of actions and play them back. It’s easy to make adjustments until it all plays the way you want and then you can save it in your library and replay it at any time; or share it with your friends. Some of the action categories to choose from include: incidents, moves, dances, expressions, sounds, content and detect as well as several others. There are some 30 or so expressions alone. It really has a full compliment of natural activities preprogrammed into its Workspace library ready for assembly into any series of actions you are likely to want to use.
Naturally, this is an autonomous robot, using time-of-flight and SLAM (simultaneous localization and mapping) to identify possible obstacles and avoid them. It also is designed with 4G connectivity and the ability to access the internet through Wi-Fi. In essence, it has all the capability of other home digital helpers like Siri and Alexa. If you need Alpha Mini to translate for you, or find the location of a famous landmark, or a chemical formula, it can provide the answer. The real technological puzzle to solve is more psychological than electrical. Can Alpha Mini be engaging enough or at least functional enough that its owners will view it as a regular part of their life? UB Tech have certainly invested in specific traits like a small stature (9.5”), cute looks, visual expression, and an engaging voice, which is a very good start.
UB Tech’s decision to focus on humanizing its humanoid robots clearly anticipates a future where a home helper robot is a normal part of the household landscape. With internet access, future Alpha-Mini could help kids with schoolwork, help plan and prepare meals in the kitchen (and clear away the dishes afterwards) ; go fetch the mail; take out the garbage; keep track of appointments and so on. Where this might be especially useful is for elder people in some sort of assisted living situation. As a staff assistant a specialized version of Alpha Mini could deliver medications on time, keep the patient stimulated and engaged, notify a nurse for any unusual behaviors, help with any mobility issues, and so on.
It’s not that hard to project these future uses for a later version of the Alpha Mini, but for now, they are only available in an academic setting. No doubt UB Tech is looking for clever insights from universities and colleges that will do some rigorous testing and bring new learning that they can build into the next version. In the meantime, if you want to see an unboxing demo of the Alpha Mini then just follow this link.
Alpha Mini unboxing Video by KhanFlicks
Background on UB Tech
It seems that robot companies are sprouting up like mushrooms after spring rains. The reality is that it takes a while to get a handle on the fast moving technologies that lead themselves to producting a functioning humanoid robot that will exist in the real world. Although UB Tech is “new” on the robot scene (founded in 2012), they are shipping over $60M a year worth of robotics and are trading on the public markets with a current capitalization of $4.5B. Hardly an “overnight” growth explosion but notable just the same.