February 06, 2017      

The robotics start-ups to come out of Willow Garage have been very competitive in the industry. From the Robot Operating System to personal robot PR2, the research and development to come out of the laboratory and incubator have influenced all of robotics. Another example of Willow Garage’s enduring influence is in the design of human-robot interaction, or HRI.

Interface design is an important element in determining to whether consumers and society will accept robots in everyday life. Although it is getting more difficult to differentiate robots by functions, end-user companies want to assume that the quality of human-machine interactions will help them acquire new customers.

The reason why there is not yet a robot for domestic use is because “robots are lacking social interaction like human beings,” observed Cynthia Breazeal, an associate professor at the MIT Media Lab and chief scientist at Jibo Inc. Her company has been working on a crowdfunded social robot.

Breazeal insisted that not only must robots not harm human beings, but they should also give us a good first impression. Robots need to establish good relationships with humans, she said.

Business Takeaways:

  • Willow Garage was the training ground for many robotics leaders who continue to influence the industry to this day.
  • Human-robot interaction was one focus of Willow Garage’s research, and it is essential to the widening adoption and use of robots in society.
  • The PR2 robot set a standard baseline for HRI research and allowed for comparisons of different designs and effectiveness of robotics interfaces.

The study of human-robot interaction

HRI is the field of study for the conceptualizing, designing, and evaluating robotic systems that work alongside humans. Its aim is to make communications between robots and humans as effortless as possible.

HRI considerations affected the designs of Pepper and Jibo.

Pepper and Jibo were designed with human-robot interaction in mind.

As the use of robots has expanded beyond factories and artificial intelligence capabilities have improved, the expectations for socially and culturally appropriate interaction have increased. Furthermore, the ability of robots such as SoftBank’s Pepper to recognize speech, gestures, and facial expressions should make communications even easier.

“Robotiquette” is a term defined by Kerstin Dautenhahn, a research professor of AI at Hertfordshire University, as “social rules for a robot’s behavior that is comfortable and acceptable to humans.”

For robots to adapt to our demands, she said, they “should be able to understand the complicated environment we human beings live in and that it is necessary to understand our intentions and emotions.”

How Willow Garage got past the HRI bottleneck

In a 2007 research paper entitled “Socially Intelligent Robots: Dimensions of Human-Robot Interaction,” Dautenhahn named the following goals for the study of HRI:

  • The development of theories, models, tools, and methods to be able to replicate the result of experiment related to HRI between each study group.
  • The adaptation of knowledge and methodology which have been accumulated in the fields around HRI, such as the study of interaction of animals to animals, humans to humans, and human-computer interaction (HCI), toward HRI.

However, if the robots that researchers used were different, there would no way to measure people’s reactions to determine if, say, more humanoid appearance was more effective than more natural speech.

Willow Garage broke through this bottleneck in the study of human-robot interaction.

Its HRI research group tackled the generalization of past studies by developing a standard robot, PR2, and then comparing it with other robots. Willow Garage also obtained the results of other studies such as those in HCI and adapted them to HRI.

Willow Garage looks at tele-operation, telepresence

The HRI group at Willow Garage initially focused on the following three areas:

  • How to operate the robots (through tele-operation or remote operation)
  • How to interact through the robots (via telepresence)
  • How to interact with the robots (HRI)

By using PR2 and comparing people’s reactions to it as well as to other robots, the Willow Garage researchers could focus on the generalizing their understanding of human-robot interaction.

They also worked to improve robot expressiveness by collaborating with animators and sound engineers.

In addition, Willow Garage’s HRI group studied how people’s preconceptions about robots could affect interactions. Factors included first impressions, individual cognitive ability, and expectations of safety.

For instance, the researchers examined how the gap between expectations and a robot’s actual influences people’s rating of the success or failure of a task. They also studied whether robots were treated as intended and how robots can tell us exactly what they can and can’t do.

More on Human-Robot Interaction:

Willow Garage alumni include animators, designers

Leila Takayama led Willow Garage’s HRI team as a manager. She previously worked at PARC and Nokia and studied user interface design for Project Wing, the aerial delivery service developed at Google X.

Takayama has a Ph.D. in both HCI and psychology, and she has received awards from Fast Company and the World Economic Forum.

Willow Garage’s HRI team includes experts in a wide range of skills. For example, Douglas Dooley was a Pixar animator who joined the team. He was involved with the production of Monsters Inc., Finding Nemo, Cars, and other movies during his 13 years at Pixar.

Dooley then studied the development of body language and character design of the robots. He stayed with the team less than a year, but Willow Garage’s robot designers have said they learned that expressions must be simple to convey human emotions.

Other robotics talent to come out of Willow Garage includes Adrian Casono, a co-founder of Savioke and the product-design lead; Jeff Gee, a co-founder of Simbe Robotics who worked as a product designer; and David Dymesich, who works for Fetch Robotics and was responsible for design.

These three industrial designers are among Willow Garage’s alumni, and they are still actively affecting the robotics industry. In my next article, we’ll look at recent examples of how human-robot interaction considerations have affected designs.