Socially Emotive Robotics

A common complaint amongst telepresence users is the lack of ability to read body language. Research out there suggests that somewhere between 50-65% of communication is non-verbal. Despite the fact that we currently give up almost all non-verbal communication over the phone, users have not quite bridged that gap. Comments like awkwardness when you can’t read a facial expression and for many of us like me, you tend to talk with your hands to accentuate a conversation. Until the era or personal robotics arrives, it is interesting to check out some of the research that is going on. Using robots as a medium, you can study both human behavior alongside understanding what it means to be human. In other words, what makes us human vs. how to make something appear more human. Some of the most interesting research into this area is going on at MIT. My favorite example I’ve found so far is the MeBot. For his master’s thesis at MIT, Sigurdur Orn Adalgeirsson used the MeBot to learn more about social expression as a means to improve user experience. His research is focusing on non-verbal behavior such as hand gestures and body language, giving users a more emotionally connecting experience. Unlike a “Skype on a stick,” telepresence robot, the MeBot has arms that can be articulated to express several social expressions. It turns out that when you give objects motion in combination to visual presence, say an anthromorphisized robot with arms compared to a computer screen, a deeper emotional engagement occurs and a perceived sense of personality is developed. This is a subtle difference if you’re only engaging someone infrequently, but if you’re a co-worker or a home health-aide, the difference can be enormous. Triggering that emotional response can mean the difference between motivating someone to perform a task and not doing anything at all, like completing a project on time or remembering to take your medication. Since a fully functioning avatar or autonomous humanoid does not quite exist yet, we’ll have to settle for some mini-alternatives.

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