Manners matter for the circuit-minded

By Ted Smalley Bowen, Technology Research News

In his dystopian futuristic comedy, "Sleeper", Woody Allen's twentieth-century time traveler, on the lam as a domestic robot, is revealed when, among other breaches in automaton etiquette, he betrays a fondness for his owner's euphoriant orb.

While sophisticated androids are still the stuff of science fiction, robotics technology is creeping closer to the point when mobile robots will be commonly employed for personal use.

Anticipating frequent human-robot interaction, researchers are trying to get a sense of how people will be affected by the activities of their mechanized assistants. Such observations could lead to the design of well-behaved, and thus more effective, robots.

To this end, University of Kansas researchers put robots through their paces in the presence of human subjects and gauged the humans' reactions.

Among the lessons they learned: personal robot etiquette frowns on rushing headlong at people. This may come as no surprise, especially in the case of large robots, but relatively little quantitative research has been done on the psychological responses mobile robots elicit in humans, according to Arvin Agah, an assistant professor of electrical engineering and computer science at the University of Kansas.

Working with a commercially available mobile robot configured in two basic body types, the researchers recorded the reactions of forty people as robots approached and went around them, and when the robots simply moved about in their presence. The robots, which were based on the Nomadic Scout II made by Nomadic Technologies Inc., moved on two wheels and a caster.

The small robot body type was 35 centimeters high and 41 centimeters in diameter, or about the size and shape of a wide mop bucket. To make the larger body type, the researchers topped the small version with a rudimentary humanoid form to give it a height of 170 centimeters, or about five-and-a-half feet.

To determine the most acceptable ways robots might approach humans, the researchers guided robots of each size toward the human subjects in several ways.

In a direct approach, a robot went straight toward a human at the speed of 10 inches per second or at a faster clip of 40 inches per second.

In an avoidance mode, a robot moved around the subjects either by stopping to change direction or by making a continuous turn. The avoidance mode speed was 10 inches per second, but the evasive moves were made at a slightly faster 15 inches per second.

The robots were also set to work moving around the space while not interacting with the human subject. This involved both random movement and a more methodical sweep of the floor space.

The researchers carried out the experiments in the relatively close quarters of a lab room measuring about nine-by-fifteen feet. The subjects recorded their responses in a survey, rating them on a one-to-five numerical scale, with one representing very uncomfortable and five very comfortable.

In general, the humans liked the small robot better than the larger, humanoid version, said John Travis Butler, a software engineer at Lockheed Martin who participated in the investigation when he was a University of Kansas graduate student. "The smaller robot body was preferred in cases where the robot was moving fast or close to the subject due to the intimidation factor of the more massive-bodied robot," he said.

In the direct approach experiments, the humans were generally comfortable with the slower approach, and were not at ease with the fast approach.

The avoidance mode was met with general approval, with the most positive reception given to the nonstop pass-by performed by the robot in its smaller incarnation.

While generally at ease with both types of non-interactive behaviors, the subjects were slightly less comfortable with the structured movements, which involved frequent and slightly faster turning.

Some of the behavioral concepts gleaned from such experiments are already being used in experimental designs, said Agah. "In research laboratories, the behavioral research is starting to be incorporated into the design of personal robots. In the industry, mostly entertainment/companion/pet robots, this will be happening in the next five years," he said.

While the behavior studies could inform the design of robots for both workplace and home settings, the requirements for those venues will likely differ, said Butler. "I would expect a work environment to be more structured and easier for a robot to operate in. [The] home would be a more dynamic environment," he said.

Workplaces will also be much more concerned with the amount of work done per dollar spent on the robot and less concerned about the attractiveness or noise of the robot, he said. "A robot working in someone's home will have to be something you can tolerate looking at every day. This will be something that the user will have to live with much like a pet. The expectations will be much higher," he said.

The University of Kansas research largely confirms similar studies of human reactions to robot actions, said Dieter Fox, assistant professor of computer science and engineering at the University of Washington. "This is an interesting article on design issues involved in the development of human-friendly service robots. Our experience [also] suggests that high acceleration is the major factor that makes people uncomfortable when being approached by mobile robots," said Fox.

However, Fox's own research shows one difference in human acceptance of robots. "In slight contrast to the results presented in this article, we had good experience with taller robots carrying human features," he said.

The next step in this type of research, said Butler, is evaluating more complex human-robot interactions by having robots perform more varied tasks with human subjects. "More interaction would give a better understanding of how people and robots will fit in the same environment," he said.

University of Kansas researchers are working on extending the work using robots that interact with people by responding to verbal and visual commands such as 'put the green one over there,' said Agah. "This requires dealing with ambiguity resolution, a concept that necessitated our multidisciplinary team of researchers including faculty from departments of electrical engineering and computer science, psychology, and linguistics," he said.

Additional work might include more detailed evaluations of human subject's behavior when they share space with mobile robots, said Butler. "Monitoring subjects as they perform normal daily activities while in the presence of an active robot would provide very interesting results," he said.

The researchers described their experiments in the March, 2001 issue of the journal Personal Robotics. The work was funded by the University of Kansas department of electrical engineering and computer science.

Timeline:   5 years
Funding:  University
TRN Categories:  Robotics; Computers and Society
Story Type:   News
Related Elements:  Technical paper "Psychological effects of behavior patterns of a mobile personal robot," Personal Robotics, March, 2001.


April 25, 2001

Page One

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Touch improves VR collaboration

Manners matter for the circuit-minded

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Linked liquid crystals move matter


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