Toshiba has developed two technologies that will enable robots to interact with several people at once as well as follow them around without bumping into them.

The company wants to sell robots that help people both in and outside the home and plans to commercialise robots combining these technologies in about five to six years.

Toshiba demonstrated the technologies with two robots that move on wheels. Apri Sharp Ear, the first robot shown, is ball-shaped and stands 43cm high, weighing 10kg. It was able to distinguish voices and commands from three people standing around it, talking back and performing tasks such as turning on a TV.

The second, ApriAttenda, is 90cm high and weighs 30kg. It has an ultrasonic sensor and can follow a walking person. It was able to stop itself moving when the demonstrator halted.

Apri Sharp Ear has six microphones planted around its body that, combined with voice signal processing technology, enable it to understand up to six people talking to it simultaneously,

ApriAttenda uses a Toshiba-developed image processing algorithm to identify people registered in its database from the colour and texture of their clothes at distances of up to 5m, while differentiating that person from other moving and stationary objects.

The robot can also avoid obstacles and search out and find the person if they move out of sight or too far away to recognise. If that fails, it can call to the person.

Such abilities are important if robots are able to move beyond entertainment functions and start to cope with real-life situations in the home and in the street, for example helping people when they go shopping.

With a little more development, the company could integrate functions of the two latest models into a single robot, a spokesperson said.

Several prototype robots with similar abilities have been developed by major Japanese electronics companies to help people around the home. One example is the PaPeRo robot by NEC, which can recognise different people and communicate with them, which NEC hopes to commercialise within a year or two.

The robots demonstrated by Toshiba build on basic face recognition, voice synthesis and obstacle avoidance technologies that the company demonstrated with an earlier Apri prototype in March 2003. The company recognises that its robot technologies are still five or six years away from commercialisation.