For entrepreneurs, inspiration is everywhere. For Feng Tan SM ’12, CEO of Woobo, a startup that makes companion robots, inspiration came from the movies. “I always had this fantasy of a robot friend. Seeing movies like Ted and Her made me realize that other people want this too,” he says. In the movie Her, an operating system acts as a companion; in Ted, it’s a teddy bear come to life. With Woobo, Tan has created something in between the two.
“Woobo offers full interaction and facial expressions, so it’s really more like a puppy that can talk than a toy robot,” he says.
To bring Woobo to life, Tan pursued many opportunities offered by MIT’s Martin Trust Center. First, he enrolled in the New Enterprise class taught by Bill Aulet SM ’94. Tan and team then took their new skills to the MIT $100K Entrepreneurship Competition, which Tan says provided him with suggestions and feedback. Next, it was on to the MIT Global Founders Skills Accelerator, also offered by the Trust Center.
“They were super helpful. We had mentorship, training, resources and even a little funding for prototypes. It was great,” Tan says. Prototyping has been very important for Woobo as it has many moving parts—some literally.
Tan says Woobo offers three things that set it apart from other bots: companionship, education, and a tool for parents. To accomplish this, Woobo displays emotions and has a personality, shares stories and answers questions, and can be programmed by parents using an app. To make sure Woobo hits the mark on each feature, Tan relies heavily on his specialized and diverse team. “We have PhD from Carnegie Mellon, a designer from RISD, engineers from MIT, and education students from Harvard. So it’s a good combination of talent,” he says.
To display emotions and a high level of interactivity, Woobo uses cloud-based artificial intelligence that coordinates what Woobo should say with the corresponding facial expressions and movements. Several sensors on the robot allow it to feel touch and interact with children’s motions.
Woobo’s app for parents utilizes its unique abilities. “They can use it to say they want Woobo to wake their child up at a certain time and to the song from Frozen. Or they can use it to have Woobo remind them to brush their teeth,” he says. With all the Woobo can do, Tan says the robot is meant to assist parents, not replace them. “Parents can use it to get feedback on their child like how they are developing or certain topics they ask Woobo about that they may find interesting,” he says.
When creating a friendly companion that also happens to be a robot, Tan says design is key. “We haven’t settled on a look. We want to test our materials and find out how kids react. Do they like long fur or short fur? How soft?” Tan explains. While children are currently beta testing the companion bot, Tan hopes Woobo will hit the market next year.