Oddly Enough

Japan robot actress takes the stage, stiffly

TOKYO (Reuters) - The brown-haired, brown-eyed woman made her Tokyo stage debut in a tearjerker about a girl suffering a fatal illness. Her voice was calm, but her performance a bit mechanical.

It wasn’t just first-night nerves. She was an android. Her name was Geminoid F.

“Sayonara,” or “Good-bye,” staged by Japanese director Oriza Hirata at a Tokyo art festival on Wednesday, marked an unusual collaboration between an android -- a robot designed to look and act like a human -- and a human actress, American Bryerly Long.

“It won’t be that a robot replaces human beings on a drama stage, it’s more as if a new type of actor has emerged in the theatrical world,” said Hirata, who had already put on two plays featuring ordinary, non-android robots.

Long plays a girl suffering from a fatal illness whose parents hire an android carer and then abandon her. The android, made to resemble a part-Russian, part-Japanese woman with long hair parted in the middle, recites poetry to her.

Seated on a chair throughout the performance, the human-sized Geminoid F carried out conversations and monologues, dressed in a dark, scoop-necked shirt and dark pants.

Her eyes blinked and her chest rose and fell as if she was breathing even as she spoke, smiled and looked surprised, though her faced lacked the depth of expression of a real person.

Her voice and gestures were created by an actress in a soundproof chamber behind the stage whose head and body movements were detected by a camera and replicated by the android. Microphones were used for her voice.

Geminoid F was produced by Hiroshi Ishiguro, a renowned robot designer at Osaka University in western Japan, whose usual androids come with a steep $1.2 million price tag.

For the play, he modified one to give it only the bare essentials needed to perform the given acting, which cut costs to one-tenth of the usual. All the android’s movements were carried out with only 12 motors.

“Androids can look very similar to human actors, but more than that, we can technically create a superior actor by featuring all the good techniques of human actors such as staring, moving and talking,” said Ishiguro.

Despite the raves, Geminoid F’s human counterpart said she felt as if she was performing solo.

“There’s a bit of distance. The robot has a quite particular position because it’s got a voice, but it’s not some kind of human presence,” Long said.

Some in the audience also had doubts.

“It looked like an android playing an android,” said 28-year-old Chihiro Aikawa.

Hirata said androids are not only good actors but also great for boosting ticket sales. About 600 people were expected to watch the play over a two-day Tokyo run.

“All of their acting problems can ultimately be solved if I only invest enough time, and the audience always loves to see them acting,” he said.

Writing by Elaine Lies; Editing by Robert Birsel