In the world of the future, science-fiction movies tell us, robots may do just about everything. But you might figure that the business of marrying would be an exception and remain the province of the heart and soul rather than of sensors and circuit boards.
But maybe not. Though robots at weddings are probably still too rare to qualify as anything approaching a trend, they have already lent a Jetsonesque air to a few ceremonies.
When Sam Vilain, 34, and Melia Meggs, 30, were married last June in Santa Cruz, California, the groom rented robots from Anybots, so that friends in New Zealand could watch and even interact with guests on the dance floor despite being halfway around the world.
At the reception, two robots shuffled to the rhythm, wiggling themselves into a circle of guests. Back in New Zealand, the groom’s friends, using an app downloaded from Anybots, navigated the robots and talked with guests via video conferencing.
Anybots rents its QB Avatar robots — which feature a flying-saucer-type contraption attached to a pole and two wheels and containing, among other things, two cameras — for guests who can’t be at a wedding but still want to be part of it. The cost is $USD 325 for a one-day rental.
The QB Avatar is not the only nonhuman helping couples marry these days. One man is renting out robots for use to assist in the wedding ceremony itself, and other couples have made toy robots a part of their ceremony.
At the wedding of Neva Reese and Moe McLendon in San Juan Capistrano, California, in July 2011, it was a robot named Father Emiglio, with flashing red light bulbs for eyes, that posed a tough question to the bride, while the gathered guests howled. “Neva, do you promise to coordinate your functions in cooperation in sickness and in health?” it asked Reese, now 33, as she was about to marry McLendon, now 37.
Then Father Emiglio sputtered and said, “Please vocalise your agreement,” before passing the proceedings on to Eric Sherman, a minister ordained by the Church of Scientology. Mr. Sherman rambled on about philosophy, but Father Emiglio was programmed to interrupt: “Stop. Stop. Enough. Nonrelevant.”
McLendon, who was interested in robotics already, got the idea for this particular touch after meeting Bob Gurr, who had created the Disneyland attraction Mr. Lincoln, an animatronic version of the president. Gurr showed the Mr. Lincoln design to McLendon, who talked about it with his fiancée while they were planning their wedding.
Using his training in computer science, Mr. McLendon started with Emiglio, a used robot made by the Italian toy company Giochi Preziosi, as the shell. For four months, he tested memory chips and glued Lego blocks, vacuum tubes and antennas to the robot. He secured a Y-wing starfighter, a “Star Wars” toy, for a nose and ribbon cables to create mutton chops.
“I was in full mad-scientist mode,” he said. “I was red-eyed and didn’t sleep.”
Turned off by a friend’s traditional wedding, Neva McLendon said that she wanted her wedding to stand out.
“I didn’t want everyone oohing and aahing about how pretty I was,” she said. “People seem to want to do the mainstream thing, but we wanted something memorable.”
Laura Wong, now 26, a mechanical engineer for QinetiQ North America, borrowed the military robot Dragon Runner 20 from work to be the ring bearer in her wedding to Alexander Cressman, 31, in May 2012.
As the robot rolled down the aisle while a friend of hers played “Mr. Roboto” on the piano, she couldn’t see what was happening but could hear her guests giggling.
The robot had not been used in the rehearsal — a co-worker of Cressman’s was supposed to navigate the robot but couldn’t make it — so during the actual ceremony, the best man, her brother-in-law, was startled when the robot lifted its gripper arm to present the ring box.
She had told him “to just stand there, but he got a little ahead of himself and he bent down so the arm brushed up against him and he jumped back,” she explained.
“Everyone laughed,” she added.
Cressman said that one of her friends approached her on the dance floor and said: “You know what’s really sad? When the robot has better rhythm than I do.”
Jon Schmig of Minneapolis designed a robot to fill the ring-bearer role when Mark Martin, 38, married Sarah Kriha, 31, last August. Schmig used an online fund-raising tool for creative projects to raise hundreds of dollars for the project, which he calls WeddingBot.
He pieced together aluminum sheets and a foam board that he had created in Google SketchUp for the skeleton and head. Then he salvaged the hands and eyes from a broken Kasey the Kinderbot toy.
Schmig also created an app to transmit signals from his cellphone to the robot, which wore a tuxedo made to fit 3-to-6-month-old babies.
“I spotted this 3-year-old kid talking to the robot, and I fired up my interface to move it,” he said. “At first, the boy was freaked out, but by the end, he was dancing with it for 10 minutes.”
For Version 2.0, known as Oscar, Schmig is working on upgrades like a confetti cannon mounted on the head, a video camera on board and a voice chip so the robot can talk when Schmig triggers the control device.
Schmig, who became an ordained minister online with the Universal Life Church, charges $250, plus travel expenses, to supply the voice of a robot to officiate a wedding.
With robots taking on more and more everyday tasks, these incidents of robot-assisted weddings are not that surprising, said Brian Coltin, a researcher at the Robotics Institute at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh.
“Laptops have gotten better and cheaper, battery technology has improved, and for us, a big change in robotics is RGB-D cameras,” he said. “It’s cheaper than it ever was, and that’s made a big difference.”
Coltin is doubtful, though, that brides and grooms of the future will see crowds of robotic stand-ins at their ceremonies.
“I don’t really see it being the preferred means of attending a wedding,” he said. “There’s something about being there in person that technology can’t achieve.”
Patricia Arend, a sociology professor at Fitchburg State University said that the robotic weddings are an outgrowth of the desire of couples to make their weddings be a distinct expression of themselves.
“It’s a way of saying we’re unique and different and we’re carving ourselves out from all those other people doing the same thing over and over again,” Arend said.
But there could be a downside, too, she warned.
“On the one hand, it’s this quirky cool thing that people might love if your friends are all graduates from M.I.T. or tech people,” she said. “But if your social group thinks of your wedding as religious or an example of high femininity, then a robot could be completely out of place or sacrilegious.”
Russell O’Neill built a robot to serve in his place when his father, Phillip O’Neill, now 65, was married to Clara Travaini, 66, in July 2011 in Queensland, Australia. Russell couldn’t attend the wedding because he had to be in Canada to get his work visa stamped right before the deadline.
He and his brother Andrew O’Neill cut scrap wood to assemble a life-size robot with joints so that other guests could shake its hands. They hooked up a small laptop computer with a webcam as the head so that Russell could witness his father exchange vows. It all cost $50.
“My sister told me, ‘Russell, it’s not your day, don’t do this,’ but everyone mingled for an hour,” he said, “so by the time they walked down the aisle, the novelty was over.”
As men pulled their dates to the dance floor in Australia, O’Neill watched from Canada sitting at his computer dressed in a suit with a beer in hand, and was able to see what was happening only right in front of the seat where his brothers had propped up the robot.
“I was unconsciously turning my head to talk to people and realising I’m in a cold, dark basement and it’s 1 in the morning,” he said.