A Robot Salesman?

How would you react when confronted with a knee-high robot that would scurry around your feet and offer you candy while talking? You are about to find out soon!

“Robots make people stop and look – they manage to evoke some kind of emotion in everyone,” says Raimond Luht, Director of BIT Systems LLC, a Tartu-based company that is planning to market robots as advertising platforms. “And where there is emotion, there is opportunity,” he adds.

BIT Systems has commissioned a team of robotics engineers at the UT Institute of Technology to build a prototype of a small, knee-high or slightly taller, advertising robot.

Alvo Aabloo, professor of polymeric materials technology at the UT Institute of Technology, told us a little about the skills of the robot which, for the time being, exists only in blueprints: “It will be able to make sounds, move around, flash lights, offer candies or distribute flyers, and talk to people.”

Well-mannered robot

The robot could be used in places with large surface areas and high customer fluctuation such as fairs, shopping centers and showrooms. The robot will be able to locate prospective customers in the room and provide them with information. According to Aabloo, there is no reason to fear that it will turn into an obtrusive salesman at the sight of whom people should take to their feet and flee.

“It is not going to take you by the trousers. The robot will be able to understand whether the person has stopped specifically in front of it and would be potentially interested in its message,” explains Aabloo.

According to Professor Aabloo, it is too early to say exactly what the robot is going to look like. “First, we will concentrate on designing the structural parts and only then start thinking what appearance we should give it,” says Aabloo.

Vahur Valdna, UT business liaison officer, remarks that it is quite unusual that a company approaches the university to commission a robot. “Entrepreneurs have not yet discovered the potential of robots, but in the coming years we will definitely see a considerable rise in interest towards robots designed for commercial purposes,” he says.

Things can be done without spending millions

The most well-known robot to be developed to date at UT is the robotic mannequin that can mimic the shape of the customer’s body, thereby enabling the clothing industry to offer tailor-made clothes at the cost of mass production.

Even though the development of the robotic mannequin has taken three years and several millions, cooperation with the university doesn’t necessarily mean that you need to have a spare 20 million to spend and 20 years to wait. “Simpler robots and technologies will be ready and serviceable in a year or even faster,” asserts Valdna.

The team developing the robot expects to assemble the prototype and begin tests by the start of the next year. Building the prototype will cost 6500 euros and the funding will be provided by Enterprise Estonia Foundation.

The story was originally published in the “Postimees” newspaper on 9 November 2010.

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