At this year’s Zukunft Personal, “NOX the Robot” illustrated a trend in the working world: robots are being used more and more, especially in production. On 16 September, the larger-than-life robot NOX could be seen wandering around the so-called “FutureLAB HR” in Hall 3.2 on behalf of perbit Software. He interacted with the visitors there – talked to them, sang, danced, flirted, sprayed them with water – to demonstrate that working with robots need not be frightening but can be a whole lot of fun. The event robot is the brainchild of a start-up from Pforzheim, founded by Tobias Danzer. We talked to him about “his creature NOX”.
Mr Danzer, why don’t you tell us a little about “NOX the Robot”!
NOX is a 2.4 metre-high humanoid robot, weighing 169 kilos. He looks as though he should be in a futuristic film. Visitors at events often ask him if he comes from Hollywood or New York. But he comes from southern Germany. He is a spin-off from work at Pforzheim University and was developed in collaboration with the Mechatronics Department.
Visual appearance is an important factor as people often expect a robot to be large and to act quickly. In our demonstrations, we not only meet these expectations, we surpass them. You can see very bright flashing lights in NOX, you might even say pulsating – almost like the blood pulsing through a human body, that is the technology behind NOX. We built in lithium accumulators like the ones used in electric cars. The “skin” or the housing is made of glass and carbon fibre, comparable to a Formula One car. Then there are the matching noises and various effects. Everything NOX says was previously recorded in a sound studio by a dubbing actor who works on international projects for television. A patch is then applied to make the voice more resonant and match the size of NOX.
How does he interact with people then?
From a dramatic point of view, the intention is to first arouse respect for him. NOX then shows his entertaining side, for example he flirts with the girls and sings songs by Stevie Wonder. In this way, we hope to turn respect or a certain fear into fascination and enthusiasm. We tailored the interactions to certain target groups – for example women and children. The image capture functions via a camera on the shoulder, a full HD camera. When he recognizes women, he dances and flirts with them. With children, he talks in a similar fashion to the Star Wars characters. Despite his size, it is important to us that he behaves like a human and evokes sympathy. Guests often say at the end of the show: “I want one like that”. That is the best reward for so many years of work.
In 2009, you established a start-up to present NOX the Robot at events. How did this come about?
NOX is supposed to be an “Innovation Ambassador”. We often use the word “innovation” but it is really difficult to make the meaning come alive. That is what it was all about. Students from three faculties were involved in the development – design, business and engineering. This is because, as already described, we needed the input from these areas of technological development: electronics and mechanics, a housing and acoustics and dramatics for the emotional impact on the spectator. The project was presented with an award from the Federal Ministry of Economics and Technology and received the EXIST start-up grant to finance the development phase.
We developed a prototype which has been booked at many events in Germany and Europe – at company events, exhibitions and congresses. The type of event ranges from consumer goods fairs to summer festivals and congresses to children’s events.
What abilities does NOX have in common with other robots that are already used today in the working world?
We developed NOX especially for events and so gave him large dimensions. There are already many robots in production areas but these look completely different of course. However, they do have something in common as like NOX, they function to a certain extent by networking. Seen from this perspective, NOX belongs to the collaborative robots that work with people. Robots used to be hived off in enclosed areas where they did not have the remotest contact with people. The future of robotics is now geared far more towards collaboration. NOX visualises this; he brings this vision closer to people. There is often talk of robots taking our jobs away but there is another side to this. They can make our work considerably easier. Robots will not replace people – they are and shall remain our tools. Man is still the final authority and he designs the robot.
To what extent can you program NOX to meet customer requirements?
We spend a lot of time travelling in German-speaking countries but also around the world. For example, we were at a trade fair in Milan, Italy this year. So he also speaks Italian. Apart from the language, there are other ways we can adapt him to particular events. For example, he can give a speech at a ceremony to celebrate the opening of a building. For congresses, customers often want him to contribute to subjects relating to Industry 4.0 and the future of business.
What are your plans for the future?
The demand has grown so much that we are thinking about instigating a second round of financing for another model. As regards further development, it is important that we develop from the very first prototype that we built at the university to achieve a model capable of small volume reproduction so that we can build two, three or even four NOX robots.
We are now out and about every week. We will be travelling to the USA for the first time with NOX in 2016. He will be performing for a customer in San Francisco for whom he generated a great deal of success at an exhibition last year. This can only be done with a well-coordinated team of course which is always in attendance at the events. Nevertheless, it is still important that we work together with the university. For example, we not only recruit interns for the engineering and business areas but also continue to work on the further development of NOX. We are now working on a technical solution to view the picture from NOX’s internal camera on a screen and so see his field of vision. You can put yourself in his position and see the people he is interacting with at the time. That is really exciting particularly if you can see the audience’s reactions, for example when a women starts dancing with him…