Many exciting projects at IDC’s Media Innovation Lab (miLAB) are shaping the way people interact with robots. The Human Computer Interaction Research and Prototyping Lab is part of the school of Communications. It was originally led by Oren Zuckerman, Noa Morag, and Guy Hoffman, and has now grown to a team of six faculty members including psychologists, engineers, and designers. The lab has become an innovative powerhouse with a truly interdisciplinary approach with undergraduate students leading many of the projects. With a wide range or research fields that include Assistive Technologies, Tangible User Interfaces, Social Robotics, and Learning Technologies, innovations such as “Kip” – a simple robotic object that accompanies human interaction by exhibiting empathetic gestures to help people increase their awareness regarding the effect of their behavior, and “Scratch Nodes” – a programmable device for children outdoor play, are some of the prototypes that are transforming how we use technology in our daily life. One of their latest creations, “The Greeting Machine” – a non-humanoid robotic object that performs social “greeting” cues when people enter its vicinity, has already caught the attention of numerous tech platforms, with articles featured in Fast Company and IEEE Spectrum.
The robot in this project is especially unique in that it is completely void of human characteristics that are prevalent in mainstream perception of robots. “We took this to the extreme by challenging the idea that a robot should look like a human being,” says Hadas Erel, a cognitive psychologist and senior researcher at miLAB who co-authored the publication, The Greeting Machine: An Abstract Robotic Object for Opening Encounters (you can read the full paper here). Erel emphasized the IDC undergraduate student involvement in the project, with Lucy Anderson-Bachar from the school of Communications leading the research, along with Benny Megidish from the Computer Science school.
In the experiment, participants entered a room in which the Greeting Machine was placed, and were simply told to describe what happened.
“We were completely overwhelmed by the consistent responses we received,” admits Erel. “we were not expecting that people who never interacted with a robot would give such a rich interpretation of what they experienced.”
The “avoid” or “approach” gestures of the robot made the participants experience positive or negative emotions based on their perception of being welcomed or rejected by the robot. It does not take much to trigger people’s social nature, in fact, the foundation of this research stems from long-standing principles in social psychology, namely the Social Brain Hypothesis: people perceive the world through a social lens. But could it be that such minimal movement of a small ball over a sphere will influence the social cues of a situation?
If people are capable of attributing intent and emotions to the gestures of such an extremely abstract object, this opens up a whole new creative approach to designing robots without the often complicated and expensive process associated with designing a humanoid robot. Making a robot more abstract can serve to mitigate some of the potentially negative consequences, such as over-identification with the robot or excessive expectations as robots become more popular outside the lab.