matter for the circuit-minded
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
To determine the most acceptable ways robots might approach humans, the
researchers guided robots of each size toward the human subjects in several
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
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
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
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,
Shaped waves promise speed
Touch improves VR
for the circuit-minded
handle hefty science files
Linked liquid crystals
Research News Roundup
Research Watch blog
View from the High Ground Q&A
How It Works
News | Blog
Buy an ad link