You've got to hand it to Nicole Lazzeri and her colleagues at the University of Pisa for creating the robot you see here. Its facial features are some of the most dynamic and convincing we've seen yet — but something's still a little off.
In an effort to escape the uncanny valley — that feeling of unease you get when you encounter a not-entirely-human-looking humanoid robot — the researchers engineered a "Hybrid Engine for Facial Expressions Synthesis" (HEFES).
HEFES endows the humanoid robot below (aptly named "FACE") with some of the most convincing, and widest-ranging, facial expressions we've ever seen. I think it's safe to say this robot doesn't quite manage to claw its soulless-looking self from the vale of creep, but it's still a damn good showing when you consider that scientists still aren't sure why the uncanny valley freaks us the hell out.
New Scientist's Helen Thompson describes the tech behind HEFES and FACE:
To mimic the myriad expressions that facial muscles are capable of achieving, the team placed 32 motors around FACE's skull and upper torso that manipulate its polymer skin in the same way that real muscles do.
To create expressions they used a combination of motor movements based on the Facial Action Coding System (FACS) - a system created over 30 years ago which codes facial expressions in terms of anatomic muscle movements.
HEFES is used to control FACE's expressions. It is essentially a mathematical programme that creates an "emotional space" which a person can use to choose an expression for FACE that exists anywhere between one or more basic emotions, including anger, disgust, fear, happiness, sadness, and surprise. The algorithm then works out which motors need to be moved to create that expression or transition between two or more.
The result is a robot that Lazzeri calls "really realistic," and she would know — FACE's visage is modeled after one of her team member's wives. Which... is creepy in its own right. Creepy or endearing. One of the two.