Researchers from leading UK institutions are working on a £2m project designed to look at how remotely operated robots could enable people to take part in public spaces - without them actually being there.
Alongside researchers from the Universities of Bath, Oxford and Queen Mary University of London, experts from Exeter University and Bristol Robotics Laboratory (BRL) will look at how using remotely operated robots might enable people to participate in public spaces.
The £2 million three-year project, Being There: Humans and Robots in Public Spaces, funded by the Engineering & Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) and led by Exeter University, will examine how robotics can help to bridge the gap between the way we communicate in person and online.
The aim of our research is for the robot to be an avatar for a remote person
Dr Paul Bremner
The project will seek to look at the social and technological aspects of being able to appear in public in proxy forms, via a range of advanced robotics platforms.
The robots will be controlled remotely - a method called tele-operation and a tele-operator will be able to see through the robot’s eyes and speak through its mouth, while directing where it looks and how it moves.
University of the West of England robotics research associate Dr Paul Bremner said: “Public spaces play a valuable role in providing shared understanding and common purpose, but if you are ill or disabled, or live too far away, this can be a barrier to participation. The aim of our research is for the robot to be an avatar for a remote person so it will be taking part in the same activities as those actually present in the venue.
“To investigate this we will use several robots such as Engineered Arts’ Robothespian, Aldebaran’s NAO, and MobileRobots’ PeopleBot. The robots will be tele-operated to produce speech, gestures and other non-verbal social behaviour so that we can look at the way robot avatars transmit social presence, first using motion capture (using a Microsoft Kinect) and later using desktop control (a keyboard and mouse).”
“Over the course of the project some autonomy will be added to the robots to enable better social interaction and allow simple desktop control. We will also investigate how different robot appearances and behaviours affect the social interaction,” Bremner added.
As part of the research, the team will create a “living laboratory”, using state-of-the-art technologies to measure how people respond to and interact with other people who are acting through a robot representative.
They will then be able to compare the measurements for different robots and means of control with how people normally interact in the living lab - as well as with one another.
Supporting this process, digital creative from Bristol’s iShed will work alongside the researchers, bringing their expertise in public engagement to help bring the research out of the lab and into a range of public spaces in Bristol.