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#437579 Disney Research Makes Robotic Gaze ...

While it’s not totally clear to what extent human-like robots are better than conventional robots for most applications, one area I’m personally comfortable with them is entertainment. The folks over at Disney Research, who are all about entertainment, have been working on this sort of thing for a very long time, and some of their animatronic attractions are actually quite impressive.

The next step for Disney is to make its animatronic figures, which currently feature scripted behaviors, to perform in an interactive manner with visitors. The challenge is that this is where you start to get into potential Uncanny Valley territory, which is what happens when you try to create “the illusion of life,” which is what Disney (they explicitly say) is trying to do.

In a paper presented at IROS this month, a team from Disney Research, Caltech, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, and Walt Disney Imagineering is trying to nail that illusion of life with a single, and perhaps most important, social cue: eye gaze.

Before you watch this video, keep in mind that you’re watching a specific character, as Disney describes:

The robot character plays an elderly man reading a book, perhaps in a library or on a park bench. He has difficulty hearing and his eyesight is in decline. Even so, he is constantly distracted from reading by people passing by or coming up to greet him. Most times, he glances at people moving quickly in the distance, but as people encroach into his personal space, he will stare with disapproval for the interruption, or provide those that are familiar to him with friendly acknowledgment.

What, exactly, does “lifelike” mean in the context of robotic gaze? The paper abstract describes the goal as “[seeking] to create an interaction which demonstrates the illusion of life.” I suppose you could think of it like a sort of old-fashioned Turing test focused on gaze: If the gaze of this robot cannot be distinguished from the gaze of a human, then victory, that’s lifelike. And critically, we’re talking about mutual gaze here—not just a robot gazing off into the distance, but you looking deep into the eyes of this robot and it looking right back at you just like a human would. Or, just like some humans would.

The approach that Disney is using is more animation-y than biology-y or psychology-y. In other words, they’re not trying to figure out what’s going on in our brains to make our eyes move the way that they do when we’re looking at other people and basing their control system on that, but instead, Disney just wants it to look right. This “visual appeal” approach is totally fine, and there’s been an enormous amount of human-robot interaction (HRI) research behind it already, albeit usually with less explicitly human-like platforms. And speaking of human-like platforms, the hardware is a “custom Walt Disney Imagineering Audio-Animatronics bust,” which has DoFs that include neck, eyes, eyelids, and eyebrows.

In order to decide on gaze motions, the system first identifies a person to target with its attention using an RGB-D camera. If more than one person is visible, the system calculates a curiosity score for each, currently simplified to be based on how much motion it sees. Depending on which person that the robot can see has the highest curiosity score, the system will choose from a variety of high level gaze behavior states, including:

Read: The Read state can be considered the “default” state of the character. When not executing another state, the robot character will return to the Read state. Here, the character will appear to read a book located at torso level.

Glance: A transition to the Glance state from the Read or Engage states occurs when the attention engine indicates that there is a stimuli with a curiosity score […] above a certain threshold.

Engage: The Engage state occurs when the attention engine indicates that there is a stimuli […] to meet a threshold and can be triggered from both Read and Glance states. This state causes the robot to gaze at the person-of-interest with both the eyes and head.

Acknowledge: The Acknowledge state is triggered from either Engage or Glance states when the person-of-interest is deemed to be familiar to the robot.

Running underneath these higher level behavior states are lower level motion behaviors like breathing, small head movements, eye blinking, and saccades (the quick eye movements that occur when people, or robots, look between two different focal points). The term for this hierarchical behavioral state layering is a subsumption architecture, which goes all the way back to Rodney Brooks’ work on robots like Genghis in the 1980s and Cog and Kismet in the ’90s, and it provides a way for more complex behaviors to emerge from a set of simple, decentralized low-level behaviors.

“25 years on Disney is using my subsumption architecture for humanoid eye control, better and smoother now than our 1995 implementations on Cog and Kismet.”
—Rodney Brooks, MIT emeritus professor

Brooks, an emeritus professor at MIT and, most recently, cofounder and CTO of Robust.ai, tweeted about the Disney project, saying: “People underestimate how long it takes to get from academic paper to real world robotics. 25 years on Disney is using my subsumption architecture for humanoid eye control, better and smoother now than our 1995 implementations on Cog and Kismet.”

From the paper:

Although originally intended for control of mobile robots, we find that the subsumption architecture, as presented in [17], lends itself as a framework for organizing animatronic behaviors. This is due to the analogous use of subsumption in human behavior: human psychomotor behavior can be intuitively modeled as layered behaviors with incoming sensory inputs, where higher behavioral levels are able to subsume lower behaviors. At the lowest level, we have involuntary movements such as heartbeats, breathing and blinking. However, higher behavioral responses can take over and control lower level behaviors, e.g., fight-or-flight response can induce faster heart rate and breathing. As our robot character is modeled after human morphology, mimicking biological behaviors through the use of a bottom-up approach is straightforward.

The result, as the video shows, appears to be quite good, although it’s hard to tell how it would all come together if the robot had more of, you know, a face. But it seems like you don’t necessarily need to have a lifelike humanoid robot to take advantage of this architecture in an HRI context—any robot that wants to make a gaze-based connection with a human could benefit from doing it in a more human-like way.

“Realistic and Interactive Robot Gaze,” by Matthew K.X.J. Pan, Sungjoon Choi, James Kennedy, Kyna McIntosh, Daniel Campos Zamora, Gunter Niemeyer, Joohyung Kim, Alexis Wieland, and David Christensen from Disney Research, California Institute of Technology, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, and Walt Disney Imagineering, was presented at IROS 2020. You can find the full paper, along with a 13-minute video presentation, on the IROS on-demand conference website.

< Back to IEEE Journal Watch Continue reading

Posted in Human Robots

#437577 A Swarm of Cyborg Cockroaches That Lives ...

Digital Nature Group at the University of Tsukuba in Japan is working towards a “post ubiquitous computing era consisting of seamless combination of computational resources and non-computational resources.” By “non-computational resources,” they mean leveraging the natural world, which for better or worse includes insects.

At small scales, the capabilities of insects far exceed the capabilities of robots. I get that. And I get that turning cockroaches into an army of insect cyborgs could be useful in a variety of ways. But what makes me fundamentally uncomfortable is the idea that “in the future, they’ll appear out of nowhere without us recognizing it, fulfilling their tasks and then hiding.” In other words, you’ll have cyborg cockroaches hiding all over your house, all the time.

Warning: This article contains video of cockroaches being modified with cybernetic implants that some people may find upsetting.

Remote controlling cockroaches isn’t a new idea, and it’s a fairly simple one. By stimulating the left or right antenna nerves of the cockroach, you can make it think that it’s running into something, and get it to turn in the opposite direction. Add wireless connectivity, some fiducial markers, an overhead camera system, and a bunch of cyborg cockroaches, and you have a resilient swarm that can collaborate on tasks. The researchers suggest that the swarm could be used as a display (by making each cockroach into a pixel), to transport objects, or to draw things. There’s also some mention of “input or haptic interfaces or an audio device,” which frankly sounds horrible.

The reason to use cockroaches is that you can take advantage of their impressive ruggedness, efficiency, high power to weight ratio, and mobility. They can also feed themselves, meaning that whenever you don’t need the swarm to perform some task for you, you can deactivate the control system and let them scurry off to find crumbs in dark places.

There are many other swarm robotic platforms that can perform what you’re seeing these cyborg roaches do, but according to the researchers, the reason to use cockroaches is that you can take advantage of their impressive ruggedness, efficiency, high power to weight ratio, and mobility. They’re a lot messier (yay biology!), but they can also feed themselves, meaning that whenever you don’t need the swarm to perform some task for you, you can deactivate the control system and let them scurry off to find crumbs in dark places. And when you need them again, turn the control system on and experience the nightmare of your cyborg cockroach swarm reassembling itself from all over your house.

While we’re on the subject of cockroach hacking, we would be doing you a disservice if we didn’t share some of project leader Yuga Tsukuda’s other projects. Here’s a cockroach-powered clock, about which the researchers note that “it is difficult to control the cockroaches when trying to control them by electrical stimulation because they move spontaneously. However, by cutting off the head and removing the brain, they do not move spontaneously and the control by the computer becomes easy.” So, zombie cockroaches. Good then.

And if that’s not enough for you, how about this:

The researchers describe this project as an “attempt to use cockroaches for makeup by sticking them on the face.” They stick electrodes into the cockroaches to make them wiggle their legs when electrical stimulation is applied. And the peacock feathers? They “make the cockroach movement bigger, and create a cosmic mystery.” Continue reading

Posted in Human Robots

#437571 Video Friday: Snugglebot Is What We All ...

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!):

IROS 2020 – October 25-25, 2020 – [Online]
Robotica 2020 – November 10-14, 2020 – [Online]
ROS World 2020 – November 12, 2020 – [Online]
CYBATHLON 2020 – November 13-14, 2020 – [Online]
ICSR 2020 – November 14-16, 2020 – Golden, Colo., USA
Bay Area Robotics Symposium – November 20, 2020 – [Online]
Let us know if you have suggestions for next week, and enjoy today's videos.

Snugglebot is what we all need right now.

[ Snugglebot ]

In his video message on his prayer intention for November, Pope Francis emphasizes that progress in robotics and artificial intelligence (AI) be oriented “towards respecting the dignity of the person and of Creation”.

[ Vatican News ]


Apparently it's supposed to do that—the disruptor flies off backwards to reduce recoil on the robot, and has its own parachute to keep it from going too far.

[ Ghost Robotics ]

Animals have many muscles, receptors, and neurons which compose feedback loops. In this study, we designed artificial muscles, receptors, and neurons without any microprocessors, or software-based controllers. We imitate the reflexive rule observed in walking experiments of cats, as a result, the Pneumatic Brainless Robot II emerged running motion (a leg trajectory and a gait pattern) through the interaction between the body, the ground, and the artificial reflexes. We envision that the simple reflex circuit we discovered will be a candidate for a minimal model for describing the principles of animal locomotion.

Find the paper, “Brainless Running: A Quasi-quadruped Robot with Decentralized Spinal Reflexes by Solely Mechanical Devices,” on IROS On-Demand.

[ IROS ]

Thanks Yoichi!

I have no idea what these guys are saying, but they're talking about robots that serve chocolate!

The world of experience of the Zotter Schokoladen Manufaktur of managing director Josef Zotter counts more than 270,000 visitors annually. Since March 2019, this world of chocolate in Bergl near Riegersburg in Austria has been enriched by a new attraction: the world's first chocolate and praline robot from KUKA delights young and old alike and serves up chocolate and pralines to guests according to their personal taste.

[ Zotter ]

This paper proposes a systematic solution that uses an unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) to aggressively and safely track an agile target. The solution properly handles the challenging situations where the intent of the target and the dense environments are unknown to the UAV. The proposed solution is integrated into an onboard quadrotor system. We fully test the system in challenging real-world tracking missions. Moreover, benchmark comparisons validate that the proposed method surpasses the cutting-edge methods on time efficiency and tracking effectiveness.

[ FAST Lab ]

Southwest Research Institute developed a cable management system for collaborative robotics, or “cobots.” Dress packs used on cobots can create problems when cables are too tight (e-stops) or loose (tangling). SwRI developed ADDRESS, or the Adaptive DRESing System, to provide smarter cobot dress packs that address e-stops and tangling.

[ SWRI ]

A quick demonstration of the acoustic contact sensor in the RBO Hand 2. An embedded microphone records the sound inside of the pneumatic finger. Depending on which part of the finger makes contact, the sound is a little bit different. We create a sensor that recognizes these small changes and predicts the contact location from the sound. The visualization on the left shows the recorded sound (top) and which of the nine contact classes the sensor is currently predicting (bottom).

[ TU Berlin ]

The MAVLab won the prize for the “most innovative design” in the IMAV 2018 indoor competition, in which drones had to fly through windows, gates, and follow a predetermined flight path. The prize was awarded for the demonstration of a fully autonomous version of the “DelFly Nimble”, a tailless flapping wing drone.

In order to fly by itself, the DelFly Nimble was equipped with a single, small camera and a small processor allowing onboard vision processing and control. The jury of international experts in the field praised the agility and autonomous flight capabilities of the DelFly Nimble.

[ MAVLab ]

A reactive walking controller for the Open Dynamic Robot Initiative's skinny quadruped.

[ ODRI ]

Mobile service robots are already able to recognize people and objects while navigating autonomously through their operating environments. But what is the ideal position of the robot to interact with a user? To solve this problem, Fraunhofer IPA developed an approach that connects navigation, 3D environment modeling, and person detection to find the optimal goal pose for HRI.

[ Fraunhofer ]

Yaskawa has been in robotics for a very, very long time.

[ Yaskawa ]

Black in Robotics IROS launch event, featuring Carlotta Berry.

[ Black in Robotics ]

What is AI? I have no idea! But these folks have some opinions.

[ MIT ]

Aerial-based Observations of Volcanic Emissions (ABOVE) is an international collaborative project that is changing the way we sample volcanic gas emissions. Harnessing recent advances in drone technology, unoccupied aerial systems (UAS) in the ABOVE fleet are able to acquire aerial measurements of volcanic gases directly from within previously inaccessible volcanic plumes. In May 2019, a team of 30 researchers undertook an ambitious field deployment to two volcanoes – Tavurvur (Rabaul) and Manam in Papua New Guinea – both amongst the most prodigious emitters of sulphur dioxide on Earth, and yet lacking any measurements of how much carbon they emit to the atmosphere.


A talk from IHMC's Robert Griffin for ICCAS 2020, including a few updates on their Nadia humanoid.

[ IHMC ] Continue reading

Posted in Human Robots

#437562 Video Friday: Aquanaut Robot Takes to ...

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!):

IROS 2020 – October 25-25, 2020 – [Online]
ICSR 2020 – November 14-16, 2020 – Golden, Colo., USA
Bay Area Robotics Symposium – November 20, 2020 – [Online]
ACRA 2020 – December 8-10, 2020 – [Online]
Let us know if you have suggestions for next week, and enjoy today's videos.

To prepare the Perseverance rover for its date with Mars, NASA’s Mars 2020 mission team conducted a wide array of tests to help ensure a successful entry, descent and landing at the Red Planet. From parachute verification in the world’s largest wind tunnel, to hazard avoidance practice in Death Valley, California, to wheel drop testing at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory and much more, every system was put through its paces to get ready for the big day. The Perseverance rover is scheduled to land on Mars on February 18, 2021.

[ JPL ]

Awesome to see Aquanaut—the “underwater transformer” we wrote about last year—take to the ocean!

Also their new website has SHARKS on it.

[ HMI ]

Nature has inspired engineers at UNSW Sydney to develop a soft fabric robotic gripper which behaves like an elephant's trunk to grasp, pick up and release objects without breaking them.

[ UNSW ]

Collaborative robots offer increased interaction capabilities at relatively low cost but, in contrast to their industrial counterparts, they inevitably lack precision. We address this problem by relying on a dual-arm system with laser-based sensing to measure relative poses between objects of interest and compensate for pose errors coming from robot proprioception.

[ Paper ]

Developed by NAVER LABS, with Korea University of Technology & Education (Koreatech), the robot arm now features an added waist, extending the available workspace, as well as a sensor head that can perceive objects. It has also been equipped with a robot hand “BLT Gripper” that can change to various grasping methods.

[ NAVER Labs ]

In case you were still wondering why SoftBank acquired Aldebaran and Boston Dynamics:

[ RobotStart ]

DJI's new Mini 2 drone is here with a commercial so hip it makes my teeth scream.

[ DJI ]

Using simple materials, such as plastic struts and cardboard rolls, the first prototype of the RBO Hand 3 is already capable of grasping a large range of different objects thanks to its opposable thumb.

The RBO Hand 3 performs an edge grasp before handing-over the object to a person. The hand actively exploits constraints in the environment (the tabletop) for grasping the object. Thanks to its compliance, this interaction is safe and robust.

[ TU Berlin ]

Flyability's Elios 2 helped researchers inspect Reactor Five at the Chernobyl nuclear disaster site in order to determine whether any uranium was present. Prior to this mission, Reactor Five had not been investigated since the disaster in April of 1986.

[ Flyability ]

Thanks Zacc!

SOTO 2 is here! Together with our development partners from the industry, we have greatly enhanced the SOTO prototype over the last two years. With the new version of the robot, Industry 4.0 will become a great deal more real: SOTO brings materials to the assembly line, just-in-time and completely autonomously.

[ Magazino ]

A drone that can fly sustainably for long distances over land and water, and can land almost anywhere, will be able to serve a wide range of applications. There are already drones that fly using ‘green’ hydrogen, but they either fly very slowly or cannot land vertically. That’s why researchers at TU Delft, together with the Royal Netherlands Navy and the Netherlands Coastguard, developed a hydrogen-powered drone that is capable of vertical take-off and landing whilst also being able to fly horizontally efficiently for several hours, much like regular aircraft. The drone uses a combination of hydrogen and batteries as its power source.

[ MAVLab ]

The National Nuclear User Facility for Hot Robotics (NNUF-HR) is an EPSRC funded facility to support UK academia and industry to deliver ground-breaking, impactful research in robotics and artificial intelligence for application in extreme and challenging nuclear environments.

[ NNUF ]

At the Karolinska University Laboratory in Sweden, an innovation project based around an ABB collaborative robot has increased efficiency and created a better working environment for lab staff.

[ ABB ]

What I find interesting about DJI's enormous new agricultural drone is that it's got a spinning obstacle detecting sensor that's a radar, not a lidar.

Also worth noting is that it seems to detect the telephone pole, but not the support wire that you can see in the video feed, although the visualization does make it seem like it can spot the power lines above.

[ DJI ]

Josh Pieper has spend the last year building his own quadruped, and you can see what he's been up to in just 12 minutes.

[ mjbots ]

Thanks Josh!

Dr. Ryan Eustice, TRI Senior Vice President of Automated Driving, delivers a keynote speech — “The Road to Vehicle Automation, a Toyota Guardian Approach” — to SPIE's Future Sensing Technologies 2020. During the presentation, Eustice provides his perspective on the current state of automated driving, summarizes TRI's Guardian approach — which amplifies human drivers, rather than replacing them — and summarizes TRI's recent developments in core AD capabilities.

[ TRI ]

Two excellent talks this week from UPenn GRASP Lab, from Ruzena Bajcsy and Vijay Kumar.

A panel discussion on the future of robotics and societal challenges with Dr. Ruzena Bajcsy as a Roboticist and Founder of the GRASP Lab.

In this talk I will describe the role of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy in supporting science and technology research and education, and the lessons I learned while serving in the office. I will also identify a few opportunities at the intersection of technology and policy and broad societal challenges.

[ UPenn ]

The IROS 2020 “Perception, Learning, and Control for Autonomous Agile Vehicles” workshop is all online—here's the intro, but you can click through for a playlist that includes videos of the entire program, and slides are available as well.

[ NYU ] Continue reading

Posted in Human Robots

#437504 A New and Improved Burger Robot’s on ...

No doubt about it, the pandemic has changed the way we eat. Never before have so many people who hated cooking been forced to learn how to prepare a basic meal for themselves. With sit-down restaurants limiting their capacity or shutting down altogether, consumption of fast food and fast-casual food has skyrocketed. Don’t feel like slaving over a hot stove? Just hit the drive through and grab a sandwich and some fries (the health implications of increased fast food consumption are another matter…).

Given our sudden immense need for paper-wrapped burgers and cardboard cartons of fries, fast food workers are now counted as essential. But what about their safety, both from a virus standpoint and from the usual risks of working in a busy kitchen (like getting burned by the stove or the hot oil from the fryer, cut by a slicer, etc.)? And how many orders of burgers and fries can humans possibly churn out in an hour?

Enter the robot. Three and a half years ago, a burger-flipping robot aptly named Flippy, made by Miso Robotics, made its debut at a fast food restaurant in California called CaliBurger. Now Flippy is on the market for anyone who wishes to purchase their own, with a price tag of $30,000 and a range of new capabilities—this burger bot has progressed far beyond just flipping burgers.

Flippy’s first iteration was already pretty impressive. It used machine learning software to locate and identify objects in front of it (rather than needing to have objects lined up in specific spots), and was able to learn from experience to improve its accuracy. Sensors on its grill-facing side took in thermal and 3D data to gauge the cooking process for multiple patties at a time, and cameras allowed the robot to ‘see’ its surroundings.

A system that digitally sent tickets to the kitchen from the restaurant’s front counter kept Flippy on top of how many burgers it should be cooking at any given time. Its key tasks were pulling raw patties from a stack and placing them on the grill, tracking each burger’s cook time and temperature, and transferring cooked burgers to a plate.

The new and improved Flippy can do all this and more. It can cook 19 different foods, including chicken wings, onion rings, french fries, and even the Impossible Burger (which, as you may know, isn’t actually made of meat, and that means it’s a little trickier to grill it to perfection).

Flippy’s handiwork. Image Credit: Miso Robotics
And instead of its body sitting on a cart on wheels (which took up a lot of space and meant the robot’s arm could get in the way of human employees), it’s now attached to a rail along the stove’s hood, and can move along the rail to access both the grill and the fryer (provided they’re next to each other, which in many fast food restaurants they are). In fact, Flippy has a new acronym attached to its name: ROAR, which stands for Robot on a Rail.

Flippy ROAR in action, artist rendering. Image Credit: Miso Robotics
Sensors equipped with laser make it safer for human employees to work near Flippy. The bot can automatically switch between different tools, such as a spatula for flipping patties and tongs for gripping the handle of a fryer basket. Its AI software will enable it to learn new skills over time.

Flippy’s interface. Image Credit: Miso Robotics
The first big restaurant chain to go all-in on Flippy was White Castle, which in July announced plans to pilot Flippy ROAR before year’s end. And just last month, Miso made the bot commercially available. The current cost is $30,000 (plus a monthly fee of $1,500 for use of the software), but the company hopes to bring the price down to $20,000 within the next year.

According to Business Insider, demand for the fast food robot is through the roof, probably given a significant boost by the pandemic—thanks, Covid-19. The pace of automation has picked up across multiple sectors, and will likely continue to accelerate as companies look to insure themselves against additional losses.

So for the immediate future, it seems that no matter what happens, we don’t have to worry about the supply of burgers, fries, onion rings, chicken wings, and the like running out.

Now if only Flippy had a cousin—perhaps named Leafy—who could chop vegetables and greens and put together fresh-made salads…

Maybe that can be Miso Robotics’ next project.

Image Credit: Miso Robotics Continue reading

Posted in Human Robots