HelloSpoon is a low-cost labour of love aimed at helping those with limited mobility eat.
When it comes to robots, embodiment is a fluid concept. Some, like the tiny Minibuilders that work together to print buildings, look mechanical and inhuman, while others are soft and weirdly squishy. The more up close and personal robots get, however—in our homes, with our children and grandparents—they tend to get cuter. Of the "cute" robot bunch, HelloSpoon might just be the most adorable yet.
HelloSpoon is a DIY meal-assistance robot designed by Luis Garcia, a 23-year-old engineer from Mexico. Essentially, it's a robot arm that helps people of limited mobility, like kids or the elderly, eat. Using a smartphone application that offers features like voice recognition (to aid in a friendlier interaction), music, and a cheering noise after every bite is taken (for the kids, d'awe), the robot is able to spoon feed people who can't feed themselves from a special slanted bowl that keeps food within the arm's reach.
HelloSpoon also looks like a big blue elephant, making it particularly adorable, especially when it says things like, "Are you ready to have fun?" Yes, HelloSpoon, I am. I am ready to have fun.
AJung Moon, an executive member of the Open Roboethics Initiative and PhD student at the University of British Columbia researching how to make robots more polite, is skeptical of cuteness when it comes to practical robots
"The social perspective is something I would be curious to find out: whether this will be a good addition to this technology, or not. Because most of the previous feeding robots that have been developed, they're more of a passive tool, like an appliance," Moon told me. "I could see a really good uptake on the children's part. But if that same interaction is targeted to the older population, they may be more hesitant to use it, because it may make them feel like they're dependent on this kid-like system."
Although it's not on the market yet—an Indiegogo campaign to build the initial run of 100 HelloSpoons was just launched yesterday—the campaign page prices a unit at $500, and a developer kit at just $200. Other meal assistance robots, like My Spoon, have a price tag in the thousands of dollars.
Affordability is at the core of HelloSpoon's design, and Garcia built it on a shoestring budget in his home. Most of the videos he's uploaded to document the project's progression appear to be shot in his kitchen, his room, and with family and friends. In a video that shows Garcia testing out HelloSpoon's voice recognition capabilities, low-resolution webcam footage captures him in a nondescript home office giddily looking at the camera when the robot recognizes a command. Then, he makes it dance to Depeche Mode, which is sick.
The robot's guts are made up of a slew of cheap components that any maker can buy online: an OpenCM controller, a few cheap actuators, a battery, and a wireless controller. In a blog post, Garcia noted how he did not want to include things like camera compatibility or other sensors in the design, because not every phone has a camera, and that would limit accessibility. Keeping the design relatively simple also keeps costs down.
"The philosophy behind HelloSpoon is [to] keep it simple and affordable. Yes, HelloSpoon is a lot of times cheaper than other solutions and that's how it should stay," Garcia added.
The absence of computer vision capabilities and complicated algorithms that could make it more adaptive might make HelloSpoon "dumber" than some other bots out there, but these qualities also make it an attractive option for people who aren't super rich and need a robo-hand at meal time.