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The Zetatype in a studio environment, holding a smartphone


Client: Jibo
  • Technology Development
  • System Architecture
  • Mechanical Engineering
  • Electrical Engineering

An exploratory hardware platform developed to investigate potential features for a consumer-facing social robot.

With a newly established startup, renowned MIT Media Lab roboticist Dr. Cynthia Breazeal was in the process of exploring possibilities for consumer-facing social robots—robots equipped with abilities to sense and respond during human interaction in daily life.

To help with this process, her team wanted hardware that would allow them to search for overlap between business, user, and technical needs. Without the capabilities to do so in-house, Dr. Breazeal brought our team in to develop the “zetatype” with a range of powerful features on an aggressive timeline.

A computer animation of Zetatype movements

One of Dr. Breazeal’s team members and a talented artist, Fardad Faridi, had already illustrated and animated a wide array of character emotions. We worked closely with Faridi to analyze the animations he created in Maya® and identify the acceleration, masses, and velocities represented in the models. Based on this information, we determined the hardware necessary to physically re-create these movements in the zetatype.

To achieve the varied range of emotions with limited complexity, the robot needed to be capable of three degrees of freedom. Additionally, the swift, smooth movements necessary for expressive response required powerful motors within the compact space.

Three Zetatype test models with differing poses
The front and side view of a Zetatype exoskeleton

We designed the robot with three wedge-shaped sections that would rotate and tilt to help it convey human emotion. We implemented powerful servomotors, encoders, and flexible wiring to achieve the quick, emotive movements portrayed by Faridi’s animations.

The shell and inner-workings of the Zetatype, paired with a timelapse animation of Cooper Perkins engineers creating the shell

The outer shell of the robot needed to sense touch in order to respond appropriately. Due to the robot’s function as a test platform, the shell also needed to be easily removable to access internal mechanisms. We developed a skin with capacitive touch sensors and wiring connected through a system of 24 magnetic pogo pins, enabling the shell to be quickly removed and naturally snap back into place.

The Zetatype with blue-lit mood sphere

For additional emotional expression, the robot has a mood sphere with RGB LED lights. The thin coating of black paint on its surface is translucent enough to transmit these expressive colors while still appearing black in its unlit state.

We delivered the hardware platform, on a tight timeline, equipped with a powerful range of capabilities ready for experimentation. Our foundational work in developing this prototype made it possible for the client to develop and release Jibo, the commercialized product, to the public, an innovation later named one of the 25 best inventions of 2017 by Time magazine.

Front cover of TIME magazine showcasing the Jibo, with the headline "25 Best Inventions of 2017"