What sings like Elvis, lip-synchs better than Britney and runs on batteries? It's the Alive Elvis robotic bust.
By Kevin Coughlin, Newhouse News Service
Last update: October 05, 2007 ? 5:49 PM
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If you could invite any historical figure over for dinner, Elvis would be a no-brainer. Too bad he's left the building. Or has he?
Thanks to Wowwee Ltd., you can dine with the King. Just make sure he gets the head table.
The $300 Alive Elvis is a robotic bust that looks, talks and sings just like Elvis Aaron Presley, circa his '68 comeback special. Plug the included cartridge into his neck, punch some buttons on a mock microphone, and Alive Elvis launches into eight songs and three dozen monologues. His eyes blink. His gaze follows you, via infrared sensors in his leather jacket.
His lip does that trademark curl. Add a real microphone, and you can sing along. How convincing is Alive Elvis?
He lip-synchs a lot better than Britney Spears. "Either you like it, or you're scared by it," said George York, who designed the talking head.
York has dared to tread into what robot mavens call the Uncanny Valley, where cool borders on creepy. Honda's ASIMO robo-valet and Sony's AIBO robo-dog are cute and cartoonish, to avoid scaring the children. Alive Elvis is for grown-ups, who still pine for their idol three decades after his death. It was the perfect challenge for a guy trained in forensic reconstruction. Give York a sun-bleached skull, he'll put the face back on it. But Hollywood special effects are his bread and butter. Remember the mutant cockroaches in the 1997 film "Mimic"?
"I was the mandibles guy," York says.
His animatronic chimp, for an Indian film company wary of animal rights groups, caught the eye of Hong Kong-based Wowwee, best known for its Roboraptor and Robosapien robot toys. That led to last year's Alive Chimpanzee, from which Elvis evolved (robotically speaking).
Alive Elvis outperforms the faux primate in every category but one: The singer is stone deaf. The $70 chimp responds when you shout or cuff him about the ears. With Elvis, York says, "that would be kind of rude." Ten motors move Alive Elvis' rubbery face. His brain is a 16-bit micro-controller with 16 megabytes of flash memory. He runs on house current or a fistful of batteries. A charter member of the Hair Club for Androids, Alive Elvis sports implants in his forehead for extra realism. But the technology was easy.
Wooing Graceland, that was tough.
The initial reaction there, York recalls, "was disgust." A prototype won over the Presley estate. Then the real work began. York says Graceland demanded more than 20 subtle changes to the King's nose, lips, teeth and irises. Elvis' monologues were chosen by Jerry Osborne, a Presley expert, and the voice was courtesy of Jamie Aaron Kelly. Recording an impersonator yielded purer audio for the 10-watt sound system, and was easier to synchronize with the robot's lips, York said. Graceland did not respond to requests for comment.
Licensing issues precluded using certain songs; Wowwee says you probably won't see an Alive John Lennon anytime soon for legal reasons. There aren't too many other global celebrities worthy of such treatment -- though macabre minds might ponder the Halloween possibilities. Freddy Krueger? Marie Antoinette?
Actually, the Stepford Wives may be more like it. Wowwee is working on $1,000 robots to help around the house. "The idea is to make something everyone can afford," says Art Janis, a sales vice president for Wowwee. As a Beatles fan growing up in California in the late '60s, York never grasped the Elvis phenomenon. Now, after touring Graceland, studying mountains of photos and hours of films, and laboring for almost three years with a small crew on this project, he finally gets Elvis.
"He has a charisma unparalleled by any performer I've seen," York said. "When he sings, he puts his whole heart and soul in it."
And that's just the robot.