Researchers at ATR’s (Advanced Telecommunications Research Institute) Intelligent Robotics and Communications Laboratory developed an indoor/outdoor communication robot called RoboPal as part of their Network Robot project in 2007. It was designed to study human-robot interaction; specifically the non-verbal cues that are used during leading and following interactions between a robot and a person. Thanks to its internal maps, RoboPal could serve as a guide at museums, hotels, or in settings that are often busy and confusing (such as air ports). It would carry your luggage while leading you in the right direction.
RoboPal’s unique design allows it to function as a guide, convey objects, and communicate using sound and simple gestures. Its face provides a focus area for communication, swiveling left and right independently of the handle bars. The handle bars can be used as a support for an elderly person, and contain the speakers. It has a display in its trunk, and laser range finders for obstacle detection. Its rubber wheels allow it to move over uneven terrain and, thanks to their configuration, it can orient itself independent of motion. It moves at a maximum speed of 1m (3’3″)/sec, stands 120cm (4′) tall, weighs 30kg (66 lbs), and has a battery life of 3 hours.
In one example application, RoboPal serves as a shopping assistant. Imagine arriving at your local grocery store or mega mall and finding a bunch of RoboPals near the entrance. One of them approaches to greet you and asks if you’d like its help. Like a shopping cart, carries stuff for you, and might lead the way to a specific section. As you shop, it provides information about a product (eg. what’s on sale today, or an item’s nutritional value), and keeps a running tally of what you’ll need to pay. You’d be in charge of where you’re going and what you’re buying, but the robot would help out and even chat with you to help stave off boredom.
It could also serve as a general assistant to the elderly. It would carry their belongings on a trip into town, provide walking support, give directions or even lead the way if necessary, and dial authorities automatically should an emergency arise. It could even provide a degree of companionship through simple conversation, and maintain a “life log” by tracking daily exercise (such as distance traveled).
These applications require RoboPal to function in a variety of roles, often switching between them depending on the context of the situation. Robots of the future are expected to take an active role in our lives. When humans interact, we use subtle forms of communication to delineate roles and expectations, from facial expressions to how we position ourselves to one another. As robots become more integrated into our society and become more intelligent, their behaviors should be based on the existing social norms in order to clearly communicate what they are doing and what is expected of us in a natural, comfortable manner. The researchers at ATR are using robots like RoboPal in order to learn how to do just that.
Reference: Dylan F. Glas, Takahiro Miyashita, Hiroshi Ishiguro, and Norihiro Hagita, “Robopal: Modeling Role Transitions in Human-Robot Interaction”, 2007 IEEE International Conference on Robotics and Automation, April 2007