Crafting a companion
Samsung is no stranger to trotting out robots at big trade shows — just last year, it revealed a trio of service-oriented Bots at CES designed to help manage people’s health care routines, guide customers through stores and, uh, purify air. Those were among Samsung’s first attempts at truly “personal” robots, and you can see how the company tried to give them personalities through human-like characteristics — they have big, blinking eyes rendered on round screens, and two of them had “heads” that swiveled around to look at people and objects. Think Eve from Wall-E, and you’re on the right track.
Ballie is different. It is no way human-like, and for Samsung, devising a way to make a robot ball look and feel like something you’d want to talk to was no small feat. As I mentioned, the original plan was to use a cloth-covered body; that idea was shelved at least partially because realized it might not hold up to certain members of the family.
“You should train your dog not to bite into it all the time,” Jun said. Still, the scalloped design TTT landed on should “withstand some of those scrapes and bumps.”
Since TTT couldn’t very well squeeze a face onto a ball running around at ground level, it also agonized over what Ballie should sound like. In Samsung’s CES keynote demo video, it can be heard making adorable chirpy sounds as it zips around a magnificently expensive-looking home and interacts with its inhabitants. Jun couldn’t confirm that those were the exact cutesy sounds a final Ballie would make, but the team landed on a philosophy it’s pleased with.
“We were very, very specific not to make it robot-y,” Jun said. “Even the sound UI we designed were from very acoustic, round instruments like a hang drum. We layered that with a little processing and included a little robot-y sound at the end to remind people this is a robot, but not the kind of robot you were expecting.”
It’s decisions like this, rather than practical ones about locomotion or power management, that could have the most impact on how this robot is received. And to some extent, Jun concedes that functionality in a product like this is less important than feel.
“It’s not about the physical object being there to trigger IoT devices. It doesn’t need to be there. It doesn’t even need to turn and make sounds and stuff, but it’s for the user. It’s a very natural interface in front of you, and there’s an important immediacy to that.”
Crafting a companion