Guy Hoffman doesn’t want the world of robotics to be solely associated with cold, sterile, mass produced automatons and Blossom is his approach to a social robot which is softer and more personal.
The social robot is quickly becoming a recognized tool for around the home. These include joining in games, playing media, taking photos, or just asking about your day when you get home. As companions for the whole family, or as therapeutic aides, their value is only growing. For the most part, they’re those bright-coloured, expressive little robots like Jibo or Kuri which all look a little like Wall-e’s friend Eve. Quite a few people have long-since started to notice that a lot of social robots are in fact eerily similar in design. Round, monochromatic and smooth, making for a friendly, minimalist design, these robots are inoffensive but lack the personal touch a companion should have. Guy Hoffman thinks that we can do better. This is where Blossom comes in.
Blossom is a collaboration between Cornell University’s Human-Robot Collaboration and Companionship Lab and Google Creative Technologies Singapore. Blossom originates as a research robot which uses advanced software to react to the content of various YouTube videos. The idea of this research is that, as Blossom learns to interpret emotional cues and stimuli, it could be an invaluable aid to developing the social skills of children on the autistic spectrum. Blossom isn’t just a learning robot, though, there are plenty of other social robots based on similar concepts. Blossom is particularly unique for actively being what the designers of more typical social robots would quite possibly consider flawed or unattractive. Blossom isn’t white and smooth or shiny. Blossom certainly doesn’t glide. It looks about as far from the sci-fi concept of a robot as you could get.
The outside is composed chiefly of a knitted wool layer and wooden, individually carved ears, all of which can be customised and replaced to keep Blossom looking however you’d like. This means that owners can even create their own custom looks for Blossom, but also, that no two Blossoms are exactly alike. The little robo-critter is also a little bit different on the inside. Blossom’s skeleton is made up of softer materials than a typical robot, meaning that its movements don’t take your breath away with their precision, but that it moves a little bit more like us, with imperfections and reactive joints. If the purpose of Blossom is to be a companion or even to teach children how to interact with others, it’s probably better if its features are something closer to a living friend and further from a sterile computer on wheels.
It’s hard to look at Blossom without conjuring ideas like the Velveteen Rabbit or Winnie the Pooh, charming, simple stories about humble objects that became so much more through the love their children had for them. Perhaps a machine isn’t the ideal companion for every child, but a small, woollen creature with big floppy ears and endearing, irreplaceable flaws can easily become the greatest friend there could be to the child who loves them.