What is a boy like me doing with a doll like this? Although My Real Baby (MRB) looks like a little girls play thing (well, it is...), this revolutionary new doll has high-tech animatronics and emotional response software! Each doll has the ability to change its face in numerous different ways allowing it to convey its emotions to the child playing with it.
The doll can smile, laugh, frown and cry as well as a number of other things. Combine this with an array of sensors and some typical doll accessories, it can provide a child with a truly stimulating play experience. Of course, we don't care about this - the most interesting part of MRB is the robotics and software behind the rubber exterior!
"...IT was the first emotionally-expressive, emotionally-responsive robot, built in 1995. “IT” featured a very mechanical-looking face, and robot arms. “IT” loved shaking hands with people, and would smile and ham it up for anyone taking his picture. “IT”, however, would get frightened if you got too close to him and would actively try to avoid having light shined in his eyes....[BIT] was created the next year, and featured the first use of simulated facial muscles to make him smile, frown, and cry. “BIT” was designed using the Behavior Language to be just like a real baby, and although he could not sense people touching him, he could tell if he was upside-down (which he didn’t like), or right-side up (which he did like)....When Hasbro and iRobot began collaborating in 1998, the MY REAL BABY doll was the first toy the two companies decided to develop together – quite literally, the “first-born”. Hasbro saw in “BIT” the foundation for an amazing toy, but much work needed to be done to turn “BIT” into a toy that children everywhere would love to play with..."
You can find more information about BIT in Peter Menzel's book RoboSapiens.
MRB can change its facial expression rather adeptly - utilizing movement in its lips, cheeks and forehead (allowing the eyebrows to be raised). The doll can also blink, suck its thumb and bottle and a couple of other behaviours. The doll also has "hundreds and hundreds" of different baby noises and words which it can randomly combine. The longer you play with the doll, the more it starts to piece sentences together in a coherent fashion.
The doll also changes its emotion using the Behaviour Language Operating System (developed by Rodney Brooks of the the MIT AI Lab and Cog fame). So, if you don't feed it, it gets hungry and cries. Fed it, then gently rock it to sleep (after you burp it) and it will stop crying. Sounds great in theory, how good does it work in practice?
I then tried to make it cry! I still hadn't got much more than a whimper after some serious continous man-handling. The manual says that MRB doesn't respond to aggressive behaviour - this is probably good, since it is not what we want to teach kids! Therefore, I left it by itself and didn't pay it any attention apart from when it fell asleep and a gentle nudge would wake it up. I eventually managed to get some decent crying noises out of it.
So does the MRB really imitate a baby? Well, if it did an ultra-realistic job of it, I'm sure it wouldn't be the most enjoyable of toys! Nevertheless, it does respond to outside stimulus quite well. Tickle it and it'll laugh, pat it on the back and it'll burp. What I found though, was it didn't exhibit too many long-term emotional feelings, it wouldn't be grouchy for an extended period of time. A quick tickle would put the baby back in a good mood. I must remember, though, that MRB is a toy and not a baby robot.
A few other points of complaint: the doll is really quite noisy! The facial motors make very audible whirs as the face changes (which is frequent). This detracts from the overall realism of the baby, making the MRB seem more like one of those robots you see in movies that make motor noises every time they move! The MRB also doesn't have a volume switch - this would be alright if the baby spoke at a reasonable volume, but mine spoke quite loudly.
Despite this, you don't buy it to study robotics nor babies. Hopefully, the MRB will pave the way for a new generation of high-technology toys that will interact with children much more. iRobot will definitely lead the way if the MRB is any indication of their technical know-how.