February 07, 2017      

What relationship should robots build with human beings? People often ask this question when discussing how to popularize robots. The answer might be found in the robot design lessons applied by people who used to work at Willow Garage.

In my previous article, I described research into human-robot interaction (HRI) at Willow Garage. Let’s examine how three designers have developed commercially successful robots based on their experiences at the research laboratory and startup incubator.

Business Takeaways:

  • Robot design principles around human-robot interaction have guided research at Willow Garage and commercial products from several robotics providers.
  • Displays that convey emotion, a height that’s nonthreatening, and safe mobility are all keys to success.
  • Service robots in retail, hospitality, and the supply chain are all examples of Willow Garage’s enduring influence on robot design.

Savioke’s Relay expresses its feelings simply

Adrian Canoso, co-founder and design lead at Savioke, was an industrial designer at Willow Garage from 2011 to 2013. Savioke’s Relay is currently fulfilling room-service requests from guests at several hotels in California.

Robot design helps Savioke's Relay be user-friendly.

Savioke’s Relay robot is designed so that even first-time viewers know where its front is.

The service robot’s exterior is designed with human perceptions in mind. Its arched back and dipped “chest” maintain balance and are intended to reduce visual volume. By arranging color coordination and the line on the body, Relay’s front is obvious, even to someone who sees it for the first time.

The touch panel on top of Relay’s body is the point of interaction with customers and enables the robot to show its tasks and communicate with words and facial expressions.

The screen displays two eyes that blink from time to time. They can also indicate emotions to human observers. The sound effects are limited, however. They are similar to the sounds made by R2-D2 and BB-8 in the Star Wars movies.

After receiving an item from Relay, you can input your evaluation, and it makes a happy sound if your score is high.

During the prototype stage, Relay had more realistic eyes on screen and performed vocal communication, but Savioke has settled its current style because users expected the robot to be too much like a human.

Some people felt threatened and overreacted because they were concerned that it was watching them. A less humanoid design reduced fears of judgment or surveillance.

Simbe Robotics’ Tally welcomes shop patrons

Another Willow Garage alumnus is Jeff Gee, who is co-founder and product designer at Simbe Robotics. Tally is Simbe’s shelf-auditing and inventory management robot for retailers.

There are a lot of similarities in robot design between Tally and Relay. Tally doesn’t deal directly with store customers and is not decorated to attract them. Like Relay, however, it can automatically move around people and obstacles using various sensors and 3D mapping software.

Tally’s front display also has two eyes to indicate the operational status of the sensors. The intent is to show people how the robot is functioning in the simplest way.

Simbe's Tally has eyes to convey expression for simple robot design.

Simbe’s Tally robot can reach high shelves without looming over people.

Gee’s attention to industrial and robot design is clear. To make sure that the customers do not get the impression that they’re being watched, the 3D sensor near the top-front display is hard to see.

The average stock display shelf in the U.S. is 4 feet (approximately 122cm) high, but Tally can reach about twice that height so that it can take a vertical image of shelves.

In prototype stage, Tally was over 6 ft. (2m) tall, but the designers were concerned that such a robot could frighten people.

For that reason, Tally is now about 3 ft. tall, with a back plate that slides and whose height is adjustable. The robot also has two cameras on its back. Gee noted that competitors who don’t understand robot design principles could put off customers.

More on Service Robot Design:

Fetch and Freight are obedient helpers

David Dymesich, who was an industrial designer at Willow Garage, now works as design lead at Fetch Robotics. He led the development of the Fetch manipulator and Freight conveyor robots for warehouse use.

Fetch Robotics promotes its Freight as an autonomous mobile platform for accessories including “hmishelf,” which includes two shelves; “cartdock,” which has a cart; and “datasurvey,” which has a custom sensor payload for autonomous site inspection and data collection.

In addition to the Fetch picker with robotic arms, Fetch Robotics has created the “fetchcore” software to manage these mobile robots.

If clients have their own stock management systems, Fetch Robotics provides integration support. The company announced a partnership with SAP last May, and it made its software compatible with SAP’s Extended Warehouse Management (EWM) product.

In my next article, we’ll look at how robot design with human-robot interaction in mind will affect supply chain, retail, and consumer applications.