Mar 082011

As robots get smarter and more capable and make their way from manufacturing assembly lines to a much wider variety of applications, we will be interacting with them in more and more situations. Currently, robots tend to move with jerky, stop/start motions, which can make it difficult for humans, who are accustomed to the fluid and dynamic movements of other humans, to easily recognize what the robots are doing. In an attempt to create robots that can better interact with humans, researchers at the Georgia Institute of Technology are getting robots to move in a much more human-like way.

Largely thanks to a generalization of research findings by researcher Albert Mehrabian, who conducted studies in the 1970’s looking at the relative importance of verbal and non-verbal messages, it is a commonly held myth – often spouted at sales seminars – that up to 93 percent of communication effectiveness is determined by nonverbal cues.

However, Mehrabian himself has pointed out that his experiments dealt with communications of feelings and attitudes, both things that robots don’t have – yet. Nevertheless, a lot of communication is non-verbal and the researchers at Georgia Tech say that developing robots that move in a more human-like fashion will allow them to better communicate with people and allow people to better understand how to approach them and how to interact with them.

To prove their theory the researchers programmed a robot called Simon to perform a series of human movements taken in a motion-capture lab. Instead of the usual jerky motion, they optimized the movements to allow more of Simon’s joints to move at the same time and for the movements to flow into each other instead of being carried out in a start/stop sequence. The researchers then asked some human subjects to identify the movements Simon made.

“When the motion was more human-like, human beings were able to watch the motion and perceive what the robot was doing more easily,” said Ph.D. student Michael Gielniak, who carried out the study with Andrea Thomaz, assistant professor in the School of Interactive Computing at Georgia Tech‘s College of Computing.

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