The original Keepon robot, developed by Hideki Kozima at Miyagi University in Japan, was incredibly cute and engaging, to the point that people just couldn't help smiling, laughing, and moving in sync while the robot danced to music or used it's built-in sensors to interact realistically with them.
The Keepon design concept was intended to explore the possibility that a simple emotive robot could help autistic children with communication and learning challenges. Most autistic children tend to be completely overwhelmed by the volume of input and sensory data involved in even the most basic social interactions. It's kind of like trying to take a drink of water from a fire hose. Kozima's insight, which turned out to be right on the money, was to reduce the flood of inputs to a minimum while packaging the robot in an appealing, friendly body.
Effective robotic concept, but too expensive for the mass market
The Keepon robot concept proved to be extremely effective, both in the lab and in field tests. The robot soon found a home in numerous research labs and universities supporting their work on autism. The only major roadblock was the price. The original design utilizing fairly complex mechanisms, motors, sensors, video cameras, microphones, and supporting electronics cost in the neighborhood of USD $30,000.
Dr. Marek Michalowski, who was a graduate student in robotics at CMU at the time, came to Japan to work in Kozima's lab and started developing software so that the robot could emote via gestures in sync with music, effectively enabling it to give the impression of "dancing" even though the robot has no arms or legs.
Since he is a big fan of the indie rock band Spoon, the first Keepon dancing video that Michalowski published publicly on YouTube was the robot dancing to the group's "I Turn My Camera On".
That video was so impressive that it's racked up over 2.6 million views since it was first uploaded in March, 2007. That video smash along with Kozima and Michalowski's work, caught the attention of Wired. The Spoon group totally loved it also. So later the same year Keepon and Spoon were featured attractions at the WIRED NextFest held in LA.
Just as a background note, I should mention that several members of Spoon appear in the video. The last segment of the video was filmed at the RT Corp robot shop in Akihabara using robots designed by several of the shop's regular customers.
Everyone knew in their gut that Keepon would be an instant market hit, especially with the Christmas gift buying public, if the price could be reduced to under $50, but it seemed like an impossible challenge.
That's where WOW! Stuff, a UK based toy development company came in. They have a passion for turning neat concepts, usually involving some unique technology or robotics, into marketable and affordable products. One of their most recent hits was Dave The Funky Shoulder Monkey designed by Nick Donaldson. WOW! Stuff worked with Donaldson to refine, simplify, cost reduce, manufacture, and market his original concept, and the robot monkey became one of the top selling toys in the UK last Christmas season.
It's taken a while since major changes had to be made to the original Keepon design. A lot of the built-in instrumentation that was necessary for lab research wouldn't serve any useful function in a toy destined for home use, so expensive items like the eye cameras were the first to go. The movement mechanism, which was originally designed like a precision mechanical watch, was simplified to use commercially available parts.
Instead of watching people to interact with them, My Keepon depends on touch and acoustic sensors. It knows when you tap on it and will react accordingly. It's internal microphone and software detect music tempos and uses the information to modify its dance and actions. And, there's enough AI built-in to make it just unpredictable enough to keep kids of all ages entranced. It even knows when it is being ignored and cries out for attention.
Since all of this started with Kozima and Michalowski's dedication to autism research, it makes total sense that a percentage of the robots sales have been committed to help cover the costs of new therapeutic units. They also have plans to release software development tools so that robot hobbyists and researchers can expand and extend their work in totally new and beneficial directions.
The My Keepon website is scheduled to go live in just over a week. In the meantime you can signup for their mail list to be notified of the latest news and information. My Keepon will be marketed in the US by Toys "R" Us and is expected to sell for less than $50.