Tag Archives: facial expressions

#436190 What Is the Uncanny Valley?

Have you ever encountered a lifelike humanoid robot or a realistic computer-generated face that seem a bit off or unsettling, though you can’t quite explain why?

Take for instance AVA, one of the “digital humans” created by New Zealand tech startup Soul Machines as an on-screen avatar for Autodesk. Watching a lifelike digital being such as AVA can be both fascinating and disconcerting. AVA expresses empathy through her demeanor and movements: slightly raised brows, a tilt of the head, a nod.

By meticulously rendering every lash and line in its avatars, Soul Machines aimed to create a digital human that is virtually undistinguishable from a real one. But to many, rather than looking natural, AVA actually looks creepy. There’s something about it being almost human but not quite that can make people uneasy.

Like AVA, many other ultra-realistic avatars, androids, and animated characters appear stuck in a disturbing in-between world: They are so lifelike and yet they are not “right.” This void of strangeness is known as the uncanny valley.

Uncanny Valley: Definition and History
The uncanny valley is a concept first introduced in the 1970s by Masahiro Mori, then a professor at the Tokyo Institute of Technology. The term describes Mori’s observation that as robots appear more humanlike, they become more appealing—but only up to a certain point. Upon reaching the uncanny valley, our affinity descends into a feeling of strangeness, a sense of unease, and a tendency to be scared or freaked out.

Image: Masahiro Mori

The uncanny valley as depicted in Masahiro Mori’s original graph: As a robot’s human likeness [horizontal axis] increases, our affinity towards the robot [vertical axis] increases too, but only up to a certain point. For some lifelike robots, our response to them plunges, and they appear repulsive or creepy. That’s the uncanny valley.

In his seminal essay for Japanese journal Energy, Mori wrote:

I have noticed that, in climbing toward the goal of making robots appear human, our affinity for them increases until we come to a valley, which I call the uncanny valley.

Later in the essay, Mori describes the uncanny valley by using an example—the first prosthetic hands:

One might say that the prosthetic hand has achieved a degree of resemblance to the human form, perhaps on a par with false teeth. However, when we realize the hand, which at first site looked real, is in fact artificial, we experience an eerie sensation. For example, we could be startled during a handshake by its limp boneless grip together with its texture and coldness. When this happens, we lose our sense of affinity, and the hand becomes uncanny.

In an interview with IEEE Spectrum, Mori explained how he came up with the idea for the uncanny valley:

“Since I was a child, I have never liked looking at wax figures. They looked somewhat creepy to me. At that time, electronic prosthetic hands were being developed, and they triggered in me the same kind of sensation. These experiences had made me start thinking about robots in general, which led me to write that essay. The uncanny valley was my intuition. It was one of my ideas.”

Uncanny Valley Examples
To better illustrate how the uncanny valley works, here are some examples of the phenomenon. Prepare to be freaked out.

1. Telenoid

Photo: Hiroshi Ishiguro/Osaka University/ATR

Taking the top spot in the “creepiest” rankings of IEEE Spectrum’s Robots Guide, Telenoid is a robotic communication device designed by Japanese roboticist Hiroshi Ishiguro. Its bald head, lifeless face, and lack of limbs make it seem more alien than human.

2. Diego-san

Photo: Andrew Oh/Javier Movellan/Calit2

Engineers and roboticists at the University of California San Diego’s Machine Perception Lab developed this robot baby to help parents better communicate with their infants. At 1.2 meters (4 feet) tall and weighing 30 kilograms (66 pounds), Diego-san is a big baby—bigger than an average 1-year-old child.

“Even though the facial expression is sophisticated and intuitive in this infant robot, I still perceive a false smile when I’m expecting the baby to appear happy,” says Angela Tinwell, a senior lecturer at the University of Bolton in the U.K. and author of The Uncanny Valley in Games and Animation. “This, along with a lack of detail in the eyes and forehead, can make the baby appear vacant and creepy, so I would want to avoid those ‘dead eyes’ rather than interacting with Diego-san.”

​3. Geminoid HI

Photo: Osaka University/ATR/Kokoro

Another one of Ishiguro’s creations, Geminoid HI is his android replica. He even took hair from his own scalp to put onto his robot twin. Ishiguro says he created Geminoid HI to better understand what it means to be human.

4. Sophia

Photo: Mikhail Tereshchenko/TASS/Getty Images

Designed by David Hanson of Hanson Robotics, Sophia is one of the most famous humanoid robots. Like Soul Machines’ AVA, Sophia displays a range of emotional expressions and is equipped with natural language processing capabilities.

5. Anthropomorphized felines

The uncanny valley doesn’t only happen with robots that adopt a human form. The 2019 live-action versions of the animated film The Lion King and the musical Cats brought the uncanny valley to the forefront of pop culture. To some fans, the photorealistic computer animations of talking lions and singing cats that mimic human movements were just creepy.

Are you feeling that eerie sensation yet?

Uncanny Valley: Science or Pseudoscience?
Despite our continued fascination with the uncanny valley, its validity as a scientific concept is highly debated. The uncanny valley wasn’t actually proposed as a scientific concept, yet has often been criticized in that light.

Mori himself said in his IEEE Spectrum interview that he didn’t explore the concept from a rigorous scientific perspective but as more of a guideline for robot designers:

Pointing out the existence of the uncanny valley was more of a piece of advice from me to people who design robots rather than a scientific statement.

Karl MacDorman, an associate professor of human-computer interaction at Indiana University who has long studied the uncanny valley, interprets the classic graph not as expressing Mori’s theory but as a heuristic for learning the concept and organizing observations.

“I believe his theory is instead expressed by his examples, which show that a mismatch in the human likeness of appearance and touch or appearance and motion can elicit a feeling of eeriness,” MacDorman says. “In my own experiments, I have consistently reproduced this effect within and across sense modalities. For example, a mismatch in the human realism of the features of a face heightens eeriness; a robot with a human voice or a human with a robotic voice is eerie.”

How to Avoid the Uncanny Valley
Unless you intend to create creepy characters or evoke a feeling of unease, you can follow certain design principles to avoid the uncanny valley. “The effect can be reduced by not creating robots or computer-animated characters that combine features on different sides of a boundary—for example, human and nonhuman, living and nonliving, or real and artificial,” MacDorman says.

To make a robot or avatar more realistic and move it beyond the valley, Tinwell says to ensure that a character’s facial expressions match its emotive tones of speech, and that its body movements are responsive and reflect its hypothetical emotional state. Special attention must also be paid to facial elements such as the forehead, eyes, and mouth, which depict the complexities of emotion and thought. “The mouth must be modeled and animated correctly so the character doesn’t appear aggressive or portray a ‘false smile’ when they should be genuinely happy,” she says.

For Christoph Bartneck, an associate professor at the University of Canterbury in New Zealand, the goal is not to avoid the uncanny valley, but to avoid bad character animations or behaviors, stressing the importance of matching the appearance of a robot with its ability. “We’re trained to spot even the slightest divergence from ‘normal’ human movements or behavior,” he says. “Hence, we often fail in creating highly realistic, humanlike characters.”

But he warns that the uncanny valley appears to be more of an uncanny cliff. “We find the likability to increase and then crash once robots become humanlike,” he says. “But we have never observed them ever coming out of the valley. You fall off and that’s it.” Continue reading

Posted in Human Robots

#435742 This ‘Useless’ Social Robot ...

The recent high profile failures of some home social robots (and the companies behind them) have made it even more challenging than it was before to develop robots in that space. And it was challenging enough to begin with—making a robot that can autonomous interact with random humans in their homes over a long period of time for a price that people can afford is extraordinarily difficult. However, the massive amount of initial interest in robots like Jibo, Kuri, Vector, and Buddy prove that people do want these things, or at least think they do, and while that’s the case, there’s incentive for other companies to give social home robots a try.

One of those companies is Zoetic, founded in 2107 by Mita Yun and Jitu Das, both ex-Googlers. Their robot, Kiki, is more or less exactly what you’d expect from a social home robot: It’s cute, white, roundish, has big eyes, promises that it will be your “robot sidekick,” and is not cheap: It’s on Kicksterter for $800. Kiki is among what appears to be a sort of tentative second wave of social home robots, where designers have (presumably) had a chance to take everything that they learned from the social home robot pioneers and use it to make things better this time around.

Kiki’s Kickstarter video is, again, more or less exactly what you’d expect from a social home robot crowdfunding campaign:

We won’t get into all of the details on Kiki in this article (the Kickstarter page has tons of information), but a few distinguishing features:

Each Kiki will develop its own personality over time through its daily interactions with its owner, other people, and other Kikis.
Interacting with Kiki is more abstract than with most robots—it can understand some specific words and phrases, and will occasionally use a few specific words or two, but otherwise it’s mostly listening to your tone of voice and responding with sounds rather than speech.
Kiki doesn’t move on its own, but it can operate for up to two hours away from its charging dock.
Depending on how your treat Kiki, it can get depressed or neurotic. It also needs to be fed, which you can do by drawing different kinds of food in the app.
Everything Kiki does runs on-board the robot. It has Wi-Fi connectivity for updates, but doesn’t rely on the cloud for anything in real-time, meaning that your data stays on the robot and that the robot will continue to function even if its remote service shuts down.

It’s hard to say whether features like these are unique enough to help Kiki be successful where other social home robots haven’t been, so we spoke with Zoetic co-founder Mita Yun and asked her why she believes that Kiki is going to be the social home robot that makes it.

IEEE Spectrum: What’s your background?

Mita Yun: I was an only child growing up, and so I always wanted something like Doraemon or Totoro. Something that when you come home it’s there to greet you, not just because it’s programmed to do that but because it’s actually actively happy to see you, and only you. I was so interested in this that I went to study robotics at CMU and then after I graduated I joined Google and worked there for five years. I tended to go for the more risky and more fun projects, but they always got cancelled—the first project I joined was called Android at Home, and then I joined Google Glass, and then I joined a team called Robots for Kids. That project was building educational robots, and then I just realized that when we’re adding technology to something, to a product, we’re actually taking the life away somehow, and the kids were more connected with stuffed animals compared to the educational robots we were building. That project was also cancelled, and in 2017, I left with a coworker of mine (Jitu Das) to bring this dream into reality. And now we’re building Kiki.

“Jibo was Alexa plus cuteness equals $800, and I feel like that equation doesn’t work for most people, and that eventually killed the company. So, for Kiki, we are actually building something very different. We’re building something that’s completely useless”
—Mita Yun, Zoetic

You started working on Kiki in 2017, when things were already getting challenging for Jibo—why did you decide to start developing a social home robot at that point?

I thought Jibo was great. It had a special magical way of moving, and it was such a new idea that you could have this robot with embodiment and it can actually be your assistant. The problem with Jibo, in my opinion, was that it took too long to fulfill the orders. It took them three to four years to actually manufacture, because it was a very complex piece of hardware, and then during that period of time Alexa and Google Home came out, and they started selling these voice systems for $30 and then you have Jibo for $800. Jibo was Alexa plus cuteness equals $800, and I feel like that equation doesn’t work for most people, and that eventually killed the company. So, for Kiki, we are actually building something very different. We’re building something that’s completely useless.

Can you elaborate on “completely useless?”

I feel like people are initially connected with robots because they remind them of a character. And it’s the closest we can get to a character other than an organic character like an animal. So we’re connected to a character like when we have a robot in a mall that’s roaming around, even if it looks really ugly, like if it doesn’t have eyes, people still take selfies with it. Why? Because they think it’s a character. And humans are just hardwired to love characters and love stories. With Kiki, we just wanted to build a character that’s alive, we don’t want to have a character do anything super useful.

I understand why other robotics companies are adding Alexa integration to their robots, and I think that’s great. But the dream I had, and the understanding I have about robotics technology, is that for a consumer robot especially, it is very very difficult for the robot to justify its price through usefulness. And then there’s also research showing that the more useless something is, the easier it is to have an emotional connection, so that’s why we want to keep Kiki very useless.

What kind of character are you creating with Kiki?

The whole design principle around Kiki is we want to make it a very vulnerable character. In terms of its status at home, it’s not going to be higher or equal status as the owner, but slightly lower status than the human, and it’s vulnerable and needs you to take care of it in order to grow up into a good personality robot.

We don’t let Kiki speak full English sentences, because whenever it does that, people are going to think it’s at least as intelligent as a baby, which is impossible for robots at this point. And we also don’t let it move around, because when you have it move around, people are going to think “I’m going to call Kiki’s name, and then Kiki is will come to me.” But that is actually very difficult to build. And then also we don’t have any voice integration so it doesn’t tell you about the stock market price and so on.

Photo: Zoetic

Kiki is designed to be “vulnerable,” and it needs you to take care of it so it can “grow up into a good personality robot,” according to its creators.

That sounds similar to what Mayfield did with Kuri, emphasizing an emotional connection rather than specific functionality.

It is very similar, but one of the key differences from Kuri, I think, is that Kuri started with a Kobuki base, and then it’s wrapped into a cute shell, and they added sounds. So Kuri started with utility in mind—navigation is an important part of Kuri, so they started with that challenge. For Kiki, we started with the eyes. The entire thing started with the character itself.

How will you be able to convince your customers to spend $800 on a robot that you’ve described as “useless” in some ways?

Because it’s useless, it’s actually easier to convince people, because it provides you with an emotional connection. I think Kiki is not a utility-driven product, so the adoption cycle is different. For a functional product, it’s very easy to pick up, because you can justify it by saying “I’m going to pay this much and then my life can become this much more efficient.” But it’s also very easy to be replaced and forgotten. For an emotional-driven product, it’s slower to pick up, but once people actually pick it up, they’re going to be hooked—they get be connected with it, and they’re willing to invest more into taking care of the robot so it will grow up to be smarter.

Maintaining value over time has been another challenge for social home robots. How will you make sure that people don’t get bored with Kiki after a few weeks?

Of course Kiki has limits in what it can do. We can combine the eyes, the facial expression, the motors, and lights and sounds, but is it going to be constantly entertaining? So we think of this as, imagine if a human is actually puppeteering Kiki—can Kiki stay interesting if a human is puppeteering it and interacting with the owner? So I think what makes a robot interesting is not just in the physical expressions, but the part in between that and the robot conveying its intentions and emotions.

For example, if you come into the room and then Kiki decides it will turn the other direction, ignore you, and then you feel like, huh, why did the robot do that to me? Did I do something wrong? And then maybe you will come up to it and you will try to figure out why it did that. So, even though Kiki can only express in four different dimensions, it can still make things very interesting, and then when its strategies change, it makes it feel like a new experience.

There’s also an explore and exploit process going on. Kiki wants to make you smile, and it will try different things. It could try to chase its tail, and if you smile, Kiki learns that this works and will exploit it. But maybe after doing it three times, you no longer find it funny, because you’re bored of it, and then Kiki will observe your reactions and be motivated to explore a new strategy.

Photo: Zoetic

Kiki’s creators are hoping that, with an emotionally engaging robot, it will be easier for people to get attached to it and willing to spend time taking care of it.

A particular risk with crowdfunding a robot like this is setting expectations unreasonably high. The emphasis on personality and emotional engagement with Kiki seems like it may be very difficult for the robot to live up to in practice.

I think we invested more than most robotics companies into really building out Kiki’s personality, because that is the single most important thing to us. For Jibo a lot of the focus was in the assistant, and for Kuri, it’s more in the movement. For Kiki, it’s very much in the personality.

I feel like when most people talk about personality, they’re mainly talking about expression. With Kiki, it’s not just in the expression itself, not just in the voice or the eyes or the output layer, it’s in the layer in between—when Kiki receives input, how will it make decisions about what to do? We actually don’t think the personality of Kiki is categorizable, which is why I feel like Kiki has a deeper implementation of how personalities should work. And you’re right, Kiki doesn’t really understand why you’re feeling a certain way, it just reads your facial expressions. It’s maybe not your best friend, but maybe closer to your little guinea pig robot.

Photo: Zoetic

The team behind Kiki paid particular attention to its eyes, and designed the robot to always face the person that it is interacting with.

Is that where you’d put Kiki on the scale of human to pet?

Kiki is definitely not human, we want to keep it very far away from human. And it’s also not a dog or cat. When we were designing Kiki, we took inspiration from mammals because humans are deeply connected to mammals since we’re mammals ourselves. And specifically we’re connected to predator animals. With prey animals, their eyes are usually on the sides of their heads, because they need to see different angles. A predator animal needs to hunt, they need to focus. Cats and dogs are predator animals. So with Kiki, that’s why we made sure the eyes are on one side of the face and the head can actuate independently from the body and the body can turn so it’s always facing the person that it’s paying attention to.

I feel like Kiki is probably does more than a plant. It does more than a fish, because a fish doesn’t look you in the eyes. It’s not as smart as a cat or a dog, so I would just put it in this guinea pig kind of category.

What have you found so far when running user studies with Kiki?

When we were first designing Kiki we went through a whole series of prototypes. One of the earlier prototypes of Kiki looked like a CRT, like a very old monitor, and when we were testing that with people they didn’t even want to touch it. Kiki’s design inspiration actually came from an airplane, with a very angular, futuristic look, but based on user feedback we made it more round and more friendly to the touch. The lights were another feature request from the users, which adds another layer of expressivity to Kiki, and they wanted to see multiple Kikis working together with different personalities. Users also wanted different looks for Kiki, to make it look like a deer or a unicorn, for example, and we actually did take that into consideration because it doesn’t look like any particular mammal. In the future, you’ll be able to have different ears to make it look like completely different animals.

There has been a lot of user feedback that we didn’t implement—I believe we should observe the users reactions and feedback but not listen to their advice. The users shouldn’t be our product designers, because if you test Kiki with 10 users, eight of them will tell you they want Alexa in it. But we’re never going to add Alexa integration to Kiki because that’s not what it’s meant to do.

While it’s far too early to tell whether Kiki will be a long-term success, the Kickstarter campaign is currently over 95 percent funded with 8 days to go, and 34 robots are still available for a May 2020 delivery.

[ Kickstarter ] Continue reading

Posted in Human Robots

#435731 Video Friday: NASA Is Sending This ...

Video Friday is your weekly selection of awesome robotics videos, collected by your Automaton bloggers. We’ll also be posting a weekly calendar of upcoming robotics events for the next few months; here’s what we have so far (send us your events!):

MARSS 2019 – July 1-5, 2019 – Helsinki, Finland
ICRES 2019 – July 29-30, 2019 – London, UK
DARPA SubT Tunnel Circuit – August 15-22, 2019 – Pittsburgh, PA, USA
Let us know if you have suggestions for next week, and enjoy today’s videos.

The big news today is that NASA is sending a robot to Saturn’s moon Titan. A flying robot. The Dragonfly mission will launch in 2026 and arrive in 2034, but you knew that already, because last January, we posted a detailed article about the concept from the Applied Physics Lab at Johns Hopkins University. And now it’s not a concept anymore, yay!

Again, read all the details plus an interview in 2018 article.

[ NASA ]

A robotic gripping arm that uses engineered bacteria to “taste” for a specific chemical has been developed by engineers at the University of California, Davis, and Carnegie Mellon University. The gripper is a proof-of-concept for biologically-based soft robotics.

The new device uses a biosensing module based on E. coli bacteria engineered to respond to the chemical IPTG by producing a fluorescent protein. The bacterial cells reside in wells with a flexible, porous membrane that allows chemicals to enter but keeps the cells inside. This biosensing module is built into the surface of a flexible gripper on a robotic arm, so the gripper can “taste” the environment through its fingers.

When IPTG crosses the membrane into the chamber, the cells fluoresce and electronic circuits inside the module detect the light. The electrical signal travels to the gripper’s control unit, which can decide whether to pick something up or release it.

[ UC Davis ]

The Toyota Research Institute (TRI) is taking on the hard problems in manipulation research toward making human-assist robots reliable and robust. Dr. Russ Tedrake, TRI Vice President of Robotics Research, explains how we are exploring the challenges and addressing the reliability gap by using a robot loading dishes in a dishwasher as an example task.

[ TRI ]

The Tactile Telerobot is the world’s first haptic telerobotic system that transmits realistic touch feedback to an operator located anywhere in the world. It is the product of joint collaboration between Shadow Robot Company, HaptX, and SynTouch. All Nippon Airways funded the project’s initial research and development.

What’s really unique about this is the HaptX tactile feedback system, which is something we’ve been following for several years now. It’s one of the most magical tech experiences I’ve ever had, and you can read about it here and here.

[ HaptX ]

Thanks Andrew!

I love how snake robots can emulate some of the fanciest moves of real snakes, and then also do bonkers things that real snakes never do.

[ Matsuno Lab ]

Here are a couple interesting videos from the Human-Robot Interaction Lab at Tufts.

A robot is instructed to perform an action and cannot do it due to lack of sensors. But when another robot is placed nearby, it can execute the instruction by tacitly tapping into the other robot’s mind and using that robot’s sensors for its own actions. Yes, it’s automatic, and yes, it’s the BORG!

Two Nao robots are instructed to perform a dance and are able to do it right after instruction. Moreover, they can switch roles immediately, and even a third different PR2 robot can perform the dance right away, demonstrating the ability of our DIARC architecture to learn quickly and share the knowledge with any type of robot running the architecture.

Compared to Nao, PR2 just sounds… depressed.

[ HRI Lab ]

This work explores the problem of robot tool construction – creating tools from parts available in the environment. We advance the state-of-the-art in robotic tool construction by introducing an approach that enables the robot to construct a wider range of tools with greater computational efficiency. Specifically, given an action that the robot wishes to accomplish and a set of building parts available to the robot, our approach reasons about the shape of the parts and potential ways of attaching them, generating a ranking of part combinations that the robot then uses to construct and test the target tool. We validate our approach on the construction of five tools using a physical 7-DOF robot arm.

[ RAIL Lab ] via [ RSS ]

We like Magazino’s approach to warehouse picking- constrain the problem to something you can reliably solve, like shoeboxes.

Magazino has announced a new pricing model for their robots. You pay 55k euros for the robot itself, and then after that, all you pay to keep the robot working is 6 cents per pick, so the robot is only costing you money for the work that it actually does.

[ Magazino ]

Thanks Florin!

Human-Robot Collaborations are happening across factories worldwide, yet very few are using it for smaller businesses, due to high costs or the difficulty of customization. Elephant Robotics, a new player from Shenzhen, the Silicon Valley of Asia, has set its sight on helping smaller businesses gain access to smart robotics. They created a Catbot (a collaborative robotic arm) that will offer high efficiency and flexibility to various industries.

The Catbot is set to help from education projects, photography, massaging, to being a personal barista or co-playing a table game. The customizations are endless. To increase the flexibility of usage, the Catbot is extremely easy to program from a high precision task up to covering hefty ground projects.

[ Elephant Robotics ]

Thanks Johnson!

Dronistics, an EPFL spin-off, has been testing out their enclosed delivery drone in the Dominican Republic through a partnership with WeRobotics.

[ WeRobotics ]

QTrobot is an expressive humanoid robot designed to help children with autism spectrum disorder and children with special educational needs in learning new skills. QTrobot uses simple and exaggerated facial expressions combined by interactive games and stories, to help children improve their emotional skills. QTrobot helps children to learn about and better understand the emotions and teach them strategies to handle their emotions more effectively.

[ LuxAI ]

Here’s a typical day in the life of a Tertill solar-powered autonomous weed-destroying robot.

$300, now shipping from Franklin Robotics.

[ Tertill ]

PAL Robotics is excited to announce a new TIAGo with two arms, TIAGo++! After carefully listening to the robotics community needs, we used TIAGo’s modularity to integrate two 7-DoF arms to our mobile manipulator. TIAGo++ can help you swiftly accomplish your research goals, opening endless possibilities in mobile manipulation.

[ PAL Robotics ]

Thanks Jack!

You’ve definitely already met the Cobalt security robot, but Toyota AI Ventures just threw a pile of money at them and would therefore like you to experience this re-introduction:

[ Cobalt Robotics ] via [ Toyota AI ]

ROSIE is a mobile manipulator kit from HEBI Robotics. And if you don’t like ROSIE, the modular nature of HEBI’s hardware means that you can take her apart and make something more interesting.

[ HEBI Robotics ]

Learn about Kawasaki Robotics’ second addition to their line of duAro dual-arm collaborative robots, duAro2. This model offers an extended vertical reach (550 mm) and an increased payload capacity (3 kg/arm).

[ Kawasaki Robotics ]

Drone Delivery Canada has partnered with Peel Region Paramedics to pilot its proprietary drone delivery platform to enable rapid first responder technology via drone with the goal to reduce response time and potentially save lives.

[ Drone Delivery Canada ]

In this week’s episode of Robots in Depth, Per speaks with Harri Ketamo, from Headai.

Harri Ketamo talks about AI and how he aims to mimic human decision making with algorithms. Harri has done a lot of AI for computer games to create opponents that are entertaining to play against. It is easy to develop a very bad or a very good opponent, but designing an opponent that behaves like a human, is entertaining to play against and that you can beat is quite hard. He talks about how AI in computer games is a very important story telling tool and an important part of making a game entertaining to play.

This work led him into other parts of the AI field. Harri thinks that we sometimes have a problem separating what is real from what is the type of story telling he knows from gaming AI. He calls for critical analysis of AI and says that data has to be used to verify AI decisions and results.

[ Robots in Depth ]

Thanks Per! Continue reading

Posted in Human Robots

#435683 How High Fives Help Us Get in Touch With ...

The human sense of touch is so naturally ingrained in our everyday lives that we often don’t notice its presence. Even so, touch is a crucial sensing ability that helps people to understand the world and connect with others. As the market for robots grows, and as robots become more ingrained into our environments, people will expect robots to participate in a wide variety of social touch interactions. At Oregon State University’s Collaborative Robotics and Intelligent Systems (CoRIS) Institute, I research how to equip everyday robots with better social-physical interaction skills—from playful high-fives to challenging physical therapy routines.

Some commercial robots already possess certain physical interaction skills. For example, the videoconferencing feature of mobile telepresence robots can keep far-away family members connected with one another. These robots can also roam distant spaces and bump into people, chairs, and other remote objects. And my Roomba occasionally tickles my toes before turning to vacuum a different area of the room. As a human being, I naturally interpret this (and other Roomba behaviors) as social, even if they were not intended as such. At the same time, for both of these systems, social perceptions of the robots’ physical interaction behaviors are not well understood, and these social touch-like interactions cannot be controlled in nuanced ways.

Before joining CoRIS early this year, I was a postdoc at the University of Southern California’s Interaction Lab, and prior to that, I completed my doctoral work at the GRASP Laboratory’s Haptics Group at the University of Pennsylvania. My dissertation focused on improving the general understanding of how robot control and planning strategies influence perceptions of social touch interactions. As part of that research, I conducted a study of human-robot hand-to-hand contact, focusing on an interaction somewhere between a high five and a hand-clapping game. I decided to study this particular interaction because people often high five, and they will likely expect robots in everyday spaces to high five as well!

I conducted a study of human-robot hand-to-hand contact, focusing on an interaction somewhere between a high five and a hand-clapping game. I decided to study this particular interaction because people often high five, and they will likely expect robots to high five as well!

The implications of motion and planning on the social touch experience in these interactions is also crucial—think about a disappointingly wimpy (or triumphantly amazing) high five that you’ve experienced in the past. This great or terrible high-fiving experience could be fleeting, but it could also influence who you interact with, who you’re friends with, and even how you perceive the character or personalities of those around you. This type of perception, judgement, and response could extend to personal robots, too!

An investigation like this requires a mixture of more traditional robotics research (e.g., understanding how to move and control a robot arm, developing models of the desired robot motion) along with techniques from design and psychology (e.g., performing interviews with research participants, using best practices from experimental methods in perception). Enabling robots with social touch abilities also comes with many challenges, and even skilled humans can have trouble anticipating what another person is about to do. Think about trying to make satisfying hand contact during a high five—you might know the classic adage “watch the elbow,” but if you’re like me, even this may not always work.

I conducted a research study involving eight different types of human-robot hand contact, with different combinations of the following: interactions with a facially reactive or non-reactive robot, a physically reactive or non-reactive planning strategy, and a lower or higher robot arm stiffness. My robotic system could become facially reactive by changing its facial expression in response to hand contact, or physically reactive by updating its plan of where to move next after sensing hand contact. The stiffness of the robot could be adjusted by changing a variable that controlled how quickly the robot’s motors tried to pull its arm to the desired position. I knew from previous research that fine differences in touch interactions can have a big impact on perceived robot character. For example, if a robot grips an object too tightly or for too long while handing an object to a person, it might be perceived as greedy, possessive, or perhaps even Sméagol-like. A robot that lets go too soon might appear careless or sloppy.

In the example cases of robot grip, it’s clear that understanding people’s perceptions of robot characteristics and personality can help roboticists choose the right robot design based on the proposed operating environment of the robot. I likewise wanted to learn how the facial expressions, physical reactions, and stiffness of a hand-clapping robot would influence human perceptions of robot pleasantness, energeticness, dominance, and safety. Understanding this relationship can help roboticists to equip robots with personalities appropriate for the task at hand. For example, a robot assisting people in a grocery store may need to be designed with a high level of pleasantness and only moderate energy, while a maximally effective robot for comedy roast battles may need high degrees of energy and dominance above all else.

After many a late night at the GRASP Lab clapping hands with a big red robot, I was ready to conduct the study. Twenty participants visited the lab to clap hands with our Baxter Research Robot and help me begin to understand how characteristics of this humanoid robot’s social touch influenced its pleasantness, energeticness, dominance, and apparent safety. Baxter interacted with participants using a custom 3D-printed hand that was inlaid with silicone inserts.

The study showed that a facially reactive robot seemed more pleasant and energetic. A physically reactive robot seemed less pleasant, energetic, and dominant for this particular study design and interaction. I thought contact with a stiffer robot would seem harder (and therefore more dominant and less safe), but counter to my expectations, a stiffer-armed robot seemed safer and less dominant to participants. This may be because the stiffer robot was more precise in following its pre-programmed trajectory, therefore seeming more predictable and less free-spirited.

Safety ratings of the robot were generally high, and several participants commented positively on the robot’s facial expressions. Some participants attributed inventive (and non-existent) intelligences to the robot—I used neither computer vision nor the Baxter robot’s cameras in this study, but more than one participant complimented me on how well the robot tracked their hand position. While interacting with the robot, participants displayed happy facial expressions more than any other analyzed type of expression.

Photo: Naomi Fitter

Participants were asked to clap hands with Baxter and describe how they perceived the robot in terms of its pleasantness, energeticness, dominance, and apparent safety.

Circling back to the idea of how people might interpret even rudimentary and practical robot behaviors as social, these results show that this type of social perception isn’t just true for my lovable (but sometimes dopey) Roomba, but also for collaborative industrial robots, and generally, any robot capable of physical human-robot interaction. In designing the motion of Baxter, the adjustment of a single number in the equation that controls joint stiffness can flip the robot from seeming safe and docile to brash and commanding. These implications are sometimes predictable, but often unexpected.

The results of this particular study give us a partial guide to manipulating the emotional experience of robot users by adjusting aspects of robot control and planning, but future work is needed to fully understand the design space of social touch. Will materials play a major role? How about personalized machine learning? Do results generalize over all robot arms, or even a specialized subset like collaborative industrial robot arms? I’m planning to continue answering these questions, and when I finally solve human-robot social touch, I’ll high five all my robots to celebrate.

Naomi Fitter is an assistant professor in the Collaborative Robotics and Intelligent Systems (CoRIS) Institute at Oregon State University, where her Social Haptics, Assistive Robotics, and Embodiment (SHARE) research group aims to equip robots with the ability to engage and empower people in interactions from playful high-fives to challenging physical therapy routines. She completed her doctoral work in the GRASP Laboratory’s Haptics Group and was a postdoctoral scholar in the University of Southern California’s Interaction Lab from 2017 to 2018. Naomi’s not-so-secret pastime is performing stand-up and improv comedy. Continue reading

Posted in Human Robots

#435681 Video Friday: This NASA Robot Uses ...

Video Friday is your weekly selection of awesome robotics videos, collected by your Automaton bloggers. We’ll also be posting a weekly calendar of upcoming robotics events for the next few months; here’s what we have so far (send us your events!):

ICRES 2019 – July 29-30, 2019 – London, U.K.
DARPA SubT Tunnel Circuit – August 15-22, 2019 – Pittsburgh, Pa., USA
IEEE Africon 2019 – September 25-27, 2019 – Accra, Ghana
ISRR 2019 – October 6-10, 2019 – Hanoi, Vietnam
Let us know if you have suggestions for next week, and enjoy today’s videos.

Robots can land on the Moon and drive on Mars, but what about the places they can’t reach? Designed by engineers as NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, a four-limbed robot named LEMUR (Limbed Excursion Mechanical Utility Robot) can scale rock walls, gripping with hundreds of tiny fishhooks in each of its 16 fingers and using artificial intelligence to find its way around obstacles. In its last field test in Death Valley, California, in early 2019, LEMUR chose a route up a cliff, scanning the rock for ancient fossils from the sea that once filled the area.

The LEMUR project has since concluded, but it helped lead to a new generation of walking, climbing and crawling robots. In future missions to Mars or icy moons, robots with AI and climbing technology derived from LEMUR could discover similar signs of life. Those robots are being developed now, honing technology that may one day be part of future missions to distant worlds.

[ NASA ]

This video demonstrates the autonomous footstep planning developed by IHMC. Robots in this video are the Atlas humanoid robot (DRC version) and the NASA Valkyrie. The operator specifies a goal location in the world, which is modeled as planar regions using the robot’s perception sensors. The planner then automatically computes the necessary steps to reach the goal using a Weighted A* algorithm. The algorithm does not reject footholds that have a certain amount of support, but instead modifies them after the plan is found to try and increase that support area.

Currently, narrow terrain has a success rate of about 50%, rough terrain is about 90%, whereas flat ground is near 100%. We plan on increasing planner speed and the ability to plan through mazes and to unseen goals by including a body-path planner as the first step. Control, Perception, and Planning algorithms by IHMC Robotics.

[ IHMC ]

I’ve never really been able to get into watching people play poker, but throw an AI from CMU and Facebook into a game of no-limit Texas hold’em with five humans, and I’m there.

[ Facebook ]

In this video, Cassie Blue is navigating autonomously. Right now, her world is very small, the Wavefield at the University of Michigan, where she is told to turn left at intersections. You’re right, that is not a lot of independence, but it’s a first step away from a human and an RC controller!

Using a RealSense RGBD Camera, an IMU, and our version of an InEKF with contact factors, Cassie Blue is building a 3D semantic map in real time that identifies sidewalks, grass, poles, bicycles, and buildings. From the semantic map, occupancy and cost maps are built with the sidewalk identified as walk-able area and everything else considered as an obstacle. A planner then sets a goal to stay approximately 50 cm to the right of the sidewalk’s left edge and plans a path around obstacles and corners using D*. The path is translated into way-points that are achieved via Cassie Blue’s gait controller.

[ University of Michigan ]

Thanks Jesse!

Dave from HEBI Robotics wrote in to share some new actuators that are designed to get all kinds of dirty: “The R-Series takes HEBI’s X-Series to the next level, providing a sealed robotics solution for rugged, industrial applications and laying the groundwork for industrial users to address challenges that are not well met by traditional robotics. To prove it, we shot some video right in the Allegheny River here in Pittsburgh. Not a bad way to spend an afternoon :-)”

The R-Series Actuator is a full-featured robotic component as opposed to a simple servo motor. The output rotates continuously, requires no calibration or homing on boot-up, and contains a thru-bore for easy daisy-chaining of wiring. Modular in nature, R-Series Actuators can be used in everything from wheeled robots to collaborative robotic arms. They are sealed to IP67 and designed with a lightweight form factor for challenging field applications, and they’re packed with sensors that enable simultaneous control of position, velocity, and torque.

[ HEBI Robotics ]

Thanks Dave!

If your robot hands out karate chops on purpose, that’s great. If it hands out karate chops accidentally, maybe you should fix that.

COVR is short for “being safe around collaborative and versatile robots in shared spaces”. Our mission is to significantly reduce the complexity in safety certifying cobots. Increasing safety for collaborative robots enables new innovative applications, thus increasing production and job creation for companies utilizing the technology. Whether you’re an established company seeking to deploy cobots or an innovative startup with a prototype of a cobot related product, COVR will help you analyze, test and validate the safety for that application.

[ COVR ]

Thanks Anna!

EPFL startup Flybotix has developed a novel drone with just two propellers and an advanced stabilization system that allow it to fly for twice as long as conventional models. That fact, together with its small size, makes it perfect for inspecting hard-to-reach parts of industrial facilities such as ducts.

[ Flybotix ]

SpaceBok is a quadruped robot designed and built by a Swiss student team from ETH Zurich and ZHAW Zurich, currently being tested using Automation and Robotics Laboratories (ARL) facilities at our technical centre in the Netherlands. The robot is being used to investigate the potential of ‘dynamic walking’ and jumping to get around in low gravity environments.

SpaceBok could potentially go up to 2 m high in lunar gravity, although such a height poses new challenges. Once it comes off the ground the legged robot needs to stabilise itself to come down again safely – like a mini-spacecraft. So, like a spacecraft. SpaceBok uses a reaction wheel to control its orientation.

[ ESA ]

A new video from GITAI showing progress on their immersive telepresence robot for space.

[ GITAI ]

Tech United’s HERO robot (a Toyota HSR) competed in the RoboCup@Home competition, and it had a couple of garbage-related hiccups.

[ Tech United ]

Even small drones are getting better at autonomous obstacle avoidance in cluttered environments at useful speeds, as this work from the HKUST Aerial Robotics Group shows.

[ HKUST ]

DelFly Nimbles now come in swarms.

[ DelFly Nimble ]

This is a very short video, but it’s a fairly impressive look at a Baxter robot collaboratively helping someone put a shirt on, a useful task for folks with disabilities.

[ Shibata Lab ]

ANYmal can inspect the concrete in sewers for deterioration by sliding its feet along the ground.

[ ETH Zurich ]

HUG is a haptic user interface for teleoperating advanced robotic systems as the humanoid robot Justin or the assistive robotic system EDAN. With its lightweight robot arms, HUG can measure human movements and simultaneously display forces from the distant environment. In addition to such teleoperation applications, HUG serves as a research platform for virtual assembly simulations, rehabilitation, and training.

[ DLR ]

This video about “image understanding” from CMU in 1979 (!) is amazing, and even though it’s long, you won’t regret watching until 3:30. Or maybe you will.

[ ARGOS (pdf) ]

Will Burrard-Lucas’ BeetleCam turned 10 this month, and in this video, he recounts the history of his little robotic camera.

[ BeetleCam ]

In this week’s episode of Robots in Depth, Per speaks with Gabriel Skantze from Furhat Robotics.

Gabriel Skantze is co-founder and Chief Scientist at Furhat Robotics and Professor in speech technology at KTH with a specialization in conversational systems. He has a background in research into how humans use spoken communication to interact.

In this interview, Gabriel talks about how the social robot revolution makes it necessary to communicate with humans in a human ways through speech and facial expressions. This is necessary as we expand the number of people that interact with robots as well as the types of interaction. Gabriel gives us more insight into the many challenges of implementing spoken communication for co-bots, where robots and humans work closely together. They need to communicate about the world, the objects in it and how to handle them. We also get to hear how having an embodied system using the Furhat robot head helps the interaction between humans and the system.

[ Robots in Depth ] Continue reading

Posted in Human Robots