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Jan De Coster: The Robot Soul

One day in April 2012 when I returned from the Pictoplasma Character Design conference in Berlin, I got a phone call from the agency Boondoggle. Their question was very simple, yet it held all the potential to change make career forever: “Can you build us a robot?”


My name had come up because I have made several interactive installations at BBDO that had gotten some attention in the industry. My head was still filled with characters from the conference, so even though I had no idea what I was getting myself into, the only possible answer was: “Sure.”

Five weeks after that phone call, Yummy needed to be on stage for a video shoot. During the five weeks of development, every flat surface in our house was taken over by robot parts. I lived and breathed robots and I made the deadline with not a lot to spare. On the last night of the development phase, something not entirely unexpected happened. For the first time with his face complete, Yummy looked right at me, and a kind of emotional link was made between us…

Although sometimes very stressful, the development of Yummy was also very rewarding and a lot of fun. So I decided this was what I wanted to do with my studio: make robots. I started thinking about how Yummy related to the other robots in the world. Robots usually have a purpose. They are perfect and very functional in nature. Yummy had none of these qualities. When I showed him to other people, I soon discovered he had other qualities, like imperfection, beauty, maybe even a form of empathy. He can be very engaging. Those are very important qualities to me, but I could not find a lot of other examples in other robots around the world.

I started making more robots, with very simplistic concepts. They were build in very tight constraints and that caused people to their operation as a kind of struggle. Their imperfections became a reflection of the imperfections of people looking at them. I got these kinds of feedback from showing my projects online and talking to people. It was very surprising to get these kinds of feedback, and also very encouraging. Herb the robot is mainly an exploration in style an attitude. With Rachel I wanted to explore what it means for a robot to be perceived as “real.” The most ambitious robot project to date is Steve, who weighs 100 kilograms and stands two meters tall. He will be working for Brightfish, hosting events and marketing campaigns.

If we think for a moment about a human soul, among many different interpretations, by my opinion, it is something that links all humans together. Remember when Felix Baumgartner was jumping from space? Millions of people were watching his experience live because we all realize Felix is also a human being like us. His jump made all of humanity a little cooler that day.

The same happened with the seven brave men who walked the surface of the moon. Many of us don’t know what they were doing there exactly, but what really mattered was that is was a human being, just like us — with arms and legs and a head, just like you and me. We were all on the moon those days with them.

Now if we take a look at what NASA did with the Mars rover Curiosity. It was inconceivably difficult to get that robot down there, but now he is there, doing his job, in those harsh conditions, day and night. He is a true robot hero, so isn’t it a little sad he doesn’t look more like a space hero? Curiosity looks very ready for the job at hand. There is no doubt about his purpose there, but where is his emotional appeal? How can I make an emotional link to this machine?

There must have been people at NASA who thought about the emotional link, because they gave him a Twitter account, so you can talk to him. He never answers me, by the way. I am probably asking the wrong questions. Imagine for a moment what it would be like if the robots on Mars would look a lot more like character we can relate to. Can you imagine then how many people would follow the missions every day ?

But why would humans want to emotionally relate to a machine? To answer that, I will look at the numerous movies and stories where people do want to make this emotional connection, like “WALL·E,” Roy Batty in “Blade Runner” and many others. I can also witness this everyday with the robots I created, if I see how my kids interact with them or people that want to take pictures with them on presentations.

If we want the future development of robots to take a certain direction, then it is really important that as many people as possible get involved in the design and development of robots. Especially to designers, I would like to say that robots have become a genuine creative medium, and with every new and awesome robot you will be creating in the near future — together with the rest of us — you are helping to define the very distant future of robots. So…

Let’s all make robots!

Jan De Coster grew up with a vivid fascination for physics, science fiction stories and hacking stuff. In college he realized that all the stories around science were often far more appealing than the theory behind them. In the mid-90s he started on his first multimedia productions en eventually evolved to working in advertising, where he invented stories and games for online campaigns. But soon his interest in virtual worlds tiered, and he started to invent interactive machines in the real world, robots in particular. Besides working in his studio, Slightly Overdone, Jan also started teaching at Erasmushogeschool Brussels this year, telling students specializing in “Art & Technology” about the creative side of electronics and the design of interactivity in physical space. He participated in last week’s Brussels GE Garage event.

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