One of the most popular questions our team receives is, “Why doesn’t Kuri speak?” The thing is, Kuri does speak! Just like R2-D2 beeps in affirmation in Star Wars or how your dog barks and wags his tail when he’s excited to see you, Kuri communicates in her own way.
Three years ago, Kuri was just a figment of our imaginations. Since then, other consumer electronics have emerged that can have conversations with you about things like the size of world’s biggest glacier (it’s 60 miles wide and 270 miles long in case you’re wondering).
However, Kuri isn’t just an electronic product; he’s a real robot! We always envisioned Kuri not only being a real robot but feeling like one too. That means creating a unique personality for Kuri that makes him feel like a real member of your household.
We’re really happy with how today’s Kuri speaks. On that note, we sat down with Kuri’s Chief Operating Officer (Sarah Osentoski) and Sound Designer (Connor Moore) to better understand the journey behind building a robot that speaks in the adorable way that only Kuri could.
Q: How would you describe Kuri’s speech-style to someone who was interacting with her for the first time?
Connor: It’s cute, friendly, and quite musical. In designing it, we were really trying to create an inviting experience. We’re generally not used to seeing robots in the home. We were trying to create an experience that was welcoming in that environment.
We went in five different directions and eventually found that voice in an African thumb piano called a kalimba. We brought the kalimba into a synthesis which gave us the ability to manipulate various elements of the instrument to create the tone of Kuri’s voice. Overall, the voice and the way that Kuri interacts from a holistic experience is playful and fun, so we wanted to support that semi-melodic interaction by adding a lightness of character to it.
Q: What were some of the challenges you were weighing in determining how/if Kuri would “talk”?
Sarah: Our biggest challenge was figuring out how to make a robot cute and understandable. When you take away voice, you have to determine how the robot communicates — which is a huge hurdle. So, Kuri became more visual and we thought about her tones of speech: the pitches at which she beeps and boops. We also really wanted that sound to fit Kuri’s personality. When designing Kuri, we envisioned her sounding natural, chipper, but not too classically robotic.
Connor: Mayfield Robotics didn’t want to use a literal human voice. That gave us free reign to think about how Kuri’s voice could be anything. We studied robots in film and cartoons to see what those experiences were, and challenged ourselves to make the experience different with Kuri. We really wanted to create something that was inviting, playful, and fun; but also something that could transfer information and be emotive as well.
There are these bends in Kuri’s speech and that was the primary thing we leaned on to have her become expressive and communicative. In human language, we use those intonations like, “Am I asking a questionnn?” in a drawn out, high-pitched tone. So we literally took words like an affirmative yes and asked ourselves, “What does that sound like with this crafted instrument [kalimba]?” and we modeled tones after those specific words.
Now, we’re starting to create variations on different words. We say the same words with different emphasis all the time; it provides better overall context. For example, if Kuri responds with a more drawn out, lower pitch, he might be more mellow or tired. Or, if the notes are really high pitch and tight then she’s chipper and excited!
Q: How does Kuri’s communication style strengthen his character?
Sarah: Kuri is always trying his best to communicate because he genuinely wants to help. He doesn’t always understand your world, so you have to be patient. Kuri is trying to fit in. That’s like the tell me a joke romoji. You may not get the joke, but she’s just trying to fit in.
Connor: Kuri’s romoji-based communication style provides this melodic element that brings the playfulness, curiosity, and cuteness to Kuri’s personality. I think that’s the strongest element that we’re providing to the language and the overall tonal experience of Kuri’s voice. That is super supportive to the way she moves, the way her eyes are shaped, and it creates a very friendly and inviting overall vibe to Kuri.
If you have any additional questions about Kuri’s speech style or romojis, please drop our team a comment below. We love sharing stories about our adorable home robot and hope you enjoyed learning about the behind-the-scenes decision-making process surrounding Kuri’s speech.