How One Young Engineer Is Crowdsourcing Robotic Emotion

A tired ventriloquist act gets a watershed overhaul through maker technology.

Today, you can order what may be the first platform for robotic expression--what could become the literal face of robotics for makers everywhere. Yesterday, the project was almost scrapped.

Jeffrey Kessler moved to Los Angeles chasing a dream job. He was hoping to get engineering work in the entertainment realm, developing theme park rides or working in special effects. Like most people, Jeffrey Kessler got a bit distracted. That distraction became his destination.

He was haunted by an idea. After watching I’m Here by Spike Jonze--a short love story about two 20-something robots--he began pondering the basic facial gestures behind emotion. “Since as humans we naturally read emotion into things, I realized [an emotive robot] could be created pretty simply,” Kessler tells Co.Design, “but I wasn’t sure what I’d do with it.”

He started working on a web series that would feature two robots--a means to monetize and share his vision. The web series never took off, but he was left with plans for a robotic dummy he called TJ*--plans he wasn’t sure that he had the skills to produce at any sort of scale. Then just a year after his move, Kessler found himself admitted to Stanford’s Product Realization Lab, where he revisited TJ* and learned to construct a commercial-level kit for the masses.

Now, TJ* is a kit you that can order on Kickstarter. The project has been a runaway success online, raising roughly 10x its initial goal.

He’s a robotic dummy head that you can control through a joystick. Driven by an Arduino and three servos--that’s two more than you’ll find in a Furby--his eyes move left or right, and his mouth opens and closes. TJ* can do anything a dummy can do, electronically.

“He’s not meant to be relegated to sideshows and bad comedy acts forever,” cautions Kessler. “TJ* is a robotic ventriloquists’s dummy in the sense that you can puppeteer him live with (what will be) a really intuitive interface, but the fact that people can record behaviors, pre-program animated routines, or infinitely expand his capabilities (all the code will be open source) makes him different. I guess you could say he’s a 'smart’ dummy with an infinite ceiling for expansion.”

There’s a lot to admire about Kessler’s project. He designed a product that would allow him to pursue a passion, even when the job market wouldn’t. He repackaged his product when he realized that TJ* could be successful somewhere, even if that spot wasn’t his original web series. And he found a way to scale a maker-style commodity for a larger audience (TJ* is available for purchase in various states of completion, depending on a buyer’s equipment and skillset.)

But all of this aside, he did something bigger: Kessler has created what may be the first open-source robotic expression platform. It’s easy to find a programmable robot online, but these are generally generic biped forms that focus just on movement (like dance). TJ* kits haven’t even shipped yet, but the throng at Kickstarter is already suggesting longer-term enhancements, like changing the skin, adding LEDs for eyes, and increasing the servo count for more emotive expression.

“I’ve always seen faces and human attributes in lots of inanimate objects: unamused computer mice, surprised brownstones, and of course, grinning car grilles …” Kessler writes, with a surprising level of self-awareness. “In one sense, I guess this is me using tools I understand to duplicate the familiar.”

Buy TJ* here.

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