Common-use slang term for any Nano-Projection Enhanced Automaton, an economical means of simulating a human being, in a rudimentary fashion sufficient to perform some menial tasks. A construct usually consisting of a small networked computer equipped with nanomachine colonies and tools, sensors, electromagnetic field generators, stabilising gyros and a high resolution projection unit.

When inactive, the device looks like a small box about the width and thickness of the trunk of an average adult. In cases where the NPEA must be mobile (and not behind a desk or counter), there will be robot legs attached to the base of the unit (it is cheaper in money, energy and CPU time to use mechanical legs than to add a hover system and project a set of legs).

When activated, the device will rapidly construct a nano-fibre shell in the shape of the arms, torso and head of a human. This is then manipulated and balanced using electromagnetic pulses. The effect is similar to a shaped hot air balloon, but with a much greater level of detail, and by changing the properties of the surface, can be given different textures and consistencies. The projector in the top of the unit then 'paints' a 3D image onto the shell. For the unit to navigate and interact with its environment in a believable way, the surrounding network must have a sufficient number of microphones and cameras.

The NPEA unit is capable, with sufficiently advanced software, to perform a wide range of tasks, and hold some simple conversations. They are sought after in establishments with advanced existing security systems, and retail outlets where the presence of traditional robots would be unsuitable. A large fast food restaurant chain recently replaced all its in-store staff with Eggshell units. They are often found driving cabs, manning information counters at airports and banks, serving drinks, etc. They require little maintainance and can have their appearance and behaviour specified in detail.

At present, the downside of NPEA devices is that they require a large amount of hardware - there is a thriving rental industry for NPEA units. They are also only able to lift and carry small items, and even then with limited success (they have a notorious difficulty with coins).

The holy grail of Eggshell design, above bestowing such a unit with 'strength', is to create a self-building NPEA unit. There is no known practical method to do this. Presumably the implementor would 'hijack' existing nanomachine systems in the area and somehow manipulate them to rapidly construct and assemble the components for an NPEA device. If this process were possible - and in a practical timescale - and coupled with improved motor functions, an NPEA device could be used as the ultimate, instant, telechir - or even, as the military have no doubt considered - an assassin.

(A disposable plastic assassin no less.)