Tsuda College for Women hosted an all-girls summer camp designed to encourage interest in media technology and IT. It was sponsored by the college as well as NEC and Apple Japan. Japan has one of the lowest percentages of female researchers among developed nations, and is beginning to focus on this issue. While it is quite common for men to become interested in technology simply because they see it as “cool” or they’re interested in the mechanisms, women often need to know how the technology will be useful to society before they become interested. There may also be hesitation to learn programming if the student doesn’t like math and physics, so the three day camp introduced these concepts through practical experience with NEC’s communication robot PaPeRo.
The students used a web tool called PaPeRoch that uses a graphical user interface and flowcharts to simplify the programming process based on Scratch (created by MIT Media Lab). Each group of two to three students was given specific situations to recreate, such as those that may occur with personal robots in the near future. The 32 participants were selected from across the country and had just met that morning, so they had to learn to collaborate quickly. Most of the students had never seen a PaPeRo before. The exercise was divided into three parts, with the students first learning about PaPeRo’s sensors and other functions. This was followed by an overview of PaPeRoch, and how to download and make simple program modules for different behaviors. Finally the students were to recreate the scenario they were given.
PaPeRo can move around on its wheels, tilt its head, speak, and its ears and mouth light up. It also reacts to touch, with sensors in both its head and body. The students utilized all of these features in their “future personal robot” scenarios, and thus learned how to program the robot. With PaPeRoch and PaPeRoch Tool, NEC has created a website and application that will allow people to create and share custom behaviors online. For now the program is only being used in special classes like this one, but in the future it will be open to the public.
As an example of the sort of scenarios the students were given, imagine trying to choreograph PaPeRo’s movements to a given piece of music. The robot must be told to “move here”, “stop”, “move there”, all with the proper timing. It is also important to bring the robot to life and give the appearance of dancing, which is difficult considering PaPeRo’s limited expressiveness and lack of limbs. The students were also allowed to decorate their PaPeRo to help personalize it. Although these extra bits sometimes fuddled PaPeRo’s sensors (which led to some frustration), the girls seemed to enjoy their presentations. There is no right or wrong here, and hopefully the experience was positive and has opened their eyes to potential career paths.
It’s great to see NEC utilizing PaPeRo in these workshops, while simultaneously developing a simplified user interface for potential customers in the future. Being able to create custom apps and easily share them will be essential for personal robots like this one to really take off. NEC should consider an international version, as workshops like this would be very appealing in other parts of the world.
There’s also a live USTREAM feed of a PaPeRo that you can interact with. If you twitter with the hashtag #paperoch it is supposed to say what you type. You can even add some emotion to its speech by adding emoticons… though currently it is in Japanese only.