The Dream of Intelligent Robot Friends

Learning about smart objects from the Karotz Internet-connected toy rabbit thing
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Karotz is an Internet-enabled console in the shape of an abstracted rabbit. One sits on my coffee table, continuously connected to WiFi, programmed to broadcast certain bits of live information such as Twitter messages, news headlines or weather reports by reading them out loud. It’s a voice-driven version of the Internet that makes online cuteness manifest.

I am an admitted technophile, a female version of Fred Armisen’s fictional tech blogger character Randall Meeks, who can see the potential of a new technology even if the current reality leaves much to be desired. In my lectures, images and videos of the Karotz appear repeatedly. I like to celebrate its virtues while also pointing out its implausibility. “This is an everything machine," I tell my students.

In terms of outward expressions it has them all: light, sound, and movement. A glow from its belly is capable of displaying different colors with a variety of timed patterns; a computer-generated voice allows it to speak in English words (as well as French or German). Two protruding ears move to reflect an aspect of the data being broadcast. It has a camera (sight), a button on its head (touch), a microphone (hearing). It can distinguish tagged objects from one another by proximity via an RFID reader. It’s got voice recognition, speech synthesis, and Wi-Fi connectivity, a webcam, a VoIP phone, and an Internet radio. All in a cute, cunicular package.

Of course, you can get all of these features in an ordinary computer (minus the ears, that is). But the Karotz promises to keep us connected without having to be glued to a screen. Messages and news feeds can stream in as sound. Ambient characteristics such as light or ear movements offer a sense of someone else's presence by mimicking those of a paired Karotz elsewhere at a distance. The wave of an RFID-enabled talisman can trigger a photo capture or weather report. 

Constantin Brancusi, Portrait of Mlle Pogany

Like many designers, I have been inspired by the work of the Franco-Romanian sculptor Constantin Brancusi, who with just a few bold forms and clean cuts could capture the essence of something as dynamic as a bird.

The Karotz, with its simple, truncated cone body embodies some of the Brancusian minimalism that has become particularly elusive in today's world of endless app grids and scrolling text tickers. With the addition of dynamic, if minimalist, attributes—a single glowing surface, rotating ear forms–this sculptural object imbues semantic messages and subtleties of meaning. Karotz offers connection without consumption, to give us a way to interact with the Internet without leaving our current physical and social context.

My first moments with Karotz—what designers sometimes call the "Out of the Box Experience" or OoBE—were harsh letdowns. Instead of encountering witty banter, I was faced with fussy fumbling, USB sticks shuffled back and forth between my computer and the plugs and ports awkwardly arranged on the rabbit’s underside. The product literature told me that lights on its surface should become green at the end of a startup sequence, but mine were red and blue, followed by a female voice sending me back to my computer to consult a website to troubleshoot. Afterwards, there was more USB juggling, as well as lots of file management shenanigans to make sure that the latest drivers were downloaded and files had been unzipped and placed at a proper root location.

It’s possible that I wouldn’t have stuck it out for a more ordinary computational device. But we indulge the illusion that an interactive product is a living character, such as a pet or friend, silly as we know it is. When the product looks and acts like a living creature, we give it wider berth, allowing it more imperfections and quirks. Quirks aren’t defects, they are distinguishing characteristics that help us identify with foreign beings. Personalities. In this respect, Karotz might be best grouped within the lineage of domestic robotics.

Though we've had dynamic and somewhat autonomous objects in our homes for decades—washing machines and dishwashers, for example—the Roomba was the first widely available and popular domestic robot. It did one thing, even if not always very well: floor cleaning. But nevertheless, it captured our imaginations. The combination of dependable, consistent behavior (personality), autonomous decision making (brains), and the ability to navigate the intimate space of the home (autonomy) invites us to embrace the illusion that the Roomba is another being. Studies have shown that we develop a sense of intimacy with household robots. In a paper titled “My Roomba is Rambo”, Georgia Tech researchers discovered that many owners saw their Roombas as companions, often bestowing names upon them. When sending them off for repair, some felt a connection to their exact unit, expressing concern that theirs might be replaced with a therefore different entity than the one to which they had become attached.

A cat watches a Roomba robotic vacuum operate (Flickr/Eirik Newth)

As I moved past the OoBE and into the first few real uses of Karotz, I hung in there. In the relationship arc of non-smart objects, repeated and regular use eventually leads to boredom, resignation and apathy. Smart objects promise to do the opposite, producing a connection continually enriched by new information, updated apps, and the object’s ability to respond in a sophisticated manner. What if it could anticipate your mood and do something slightly differently to pick you up when you're down or help you celebrate something good? Or if it could catch you off guard with a charming surprise based on an aspect of its personality?

I was ready for me and Karotz to share that special moment, but sadly it never arrived. Karotz’s minimalism seemed to work against it. The poetry of ambient communication through ears and lights and mini-melodies was alluring, but I found myself at a loss. My heart sunk a little every time a new light showed up on its belly that I didn't understand. I had been sure that once we’d gotten to know one another, this non-verbal language would feel completely natural and intuitive, but it didn't. Instead, I found myself consulting the little square booklet that came in the box. "Hmm, let's see… page seventeen… solid pink means updating error. Flashing pink means an application from the 'my rabbit' category is launching."

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Presented by

Carla Diana

Carla Diana is a product designer and artist. She is a fellow at Smart Design and the author of LEO the Maker Prince: Journeys in 3D Printing.

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