‘Reverse primary thrust, Marvin.’ That’s what they say to me. ‘Open airlock number 3, Marvin.’ ‘Marvin, can you pick up that piece of paper?’ Here I am, brain the size of a planet, and they ask me to pick up a piece of paper.’
"The Hitch Hikers Guide to the Galaxy: Episode #1.5" (1981)
Well, Marvin Assistenzroboter (assistive robot) developed by the Ravensburg-Weingarten Institute of Artificial Intelligence , doesn’t mind picking up pieces of paper or even bringing you a glass of water. Benjamin Reiner, research assistant at the institute, explains that Marvin was developed as part of a research project to help the elderly and people with disabilities with everyday tasks. When he’s not helping people, Marvin enjoys playing football (he’s hoping to become a RoboCup champion).
Increasingly more intelligent and sophisticated robots are popping up everywhere these days and are no longer just the stuff of science fiction. Some are even socially aware and have distinct personalities … Despite some (perhaps justified?) fears of the robot overlords taking over the planet, it seems pretty clear that robotics has a huge potential to positively influence people’s lives. As Benjamin recounts, “we worked with a lady who couldn’t move any part of her body except her eyes and she got Marvin to bring her a glass of water and she was very, very happy. That was very cool and impressive to see. It gives people a chance to be a lot more independent”.
One of the key tasks for the research team was to make sure that people with various accessibility needs can easily communicate with Marvin. Currently, the robot has three interfaces – touchscreen, gamepad and speech.
“I started to search around and evaluate text to speech engines and our decision was to use CereVoice because the API looked very easy and was very well documented. It met all our requirements and there weren’t many other TTS engines that met our requirements. Finding a natural TTS voice in German was a problem and also finding something that worked with Linux was a problem,” Benjamin says.
Watch Marvin in action and listen to him speak (with CereVoice Alex) in this report by Deutsche Welle
The Ravensburg-Weingarten team, and many more research institutes, use the open source Robot Operating System (ROS) to build their applications. As part of this project, they’ve also developed a CereVoice ROS package. Check it out here.
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