Just a few weeks ago TEDxBristol set itself the challenging theme of ‘GreatXpectations’ and treated its audience to a day’s worth of moving, through-provoking and mind-boggling talks.
But even with those great expectations, the audience was blown away by a TED world-first when a humanoid robot avatar was brought on stage. Controlled by researcher Dr Paul Bremner, this was the first robot avatar to ever present a TED talk!
“Robots have the potential to help us in our everyday lives in a variety of different ways, and investing in this future is worthwhile”
Designed to challenge traditional ideas of remote communication, the robot is controlled by a virtual reality (VR) headset and sensors attached to the user’s body. This means the user can see the people they’re communicating with through the robot’s own camera helmet whilst those on the receiving-end can see the user’s body language and movements through the robot itself.
A robot avatar has many potential uses ranging from helping socially isolated people to making those pesky remote business meetings a much more natural and engaging experience by including your gestures – an important part of human communication.
Meet the prototype: And checkout how it’s controlled on stage by
Bristol Robotic Lab researcher, Dr Paul Bremner
Keen to find out more about this extraordinary piece of innovation, developed at the Bristol Robotics Lab (BRL), TechSPARK caught up with the man-behind-the-VR-mask, Dr Paul Bremner (pictured below left).
- You might like: TEDxBristol is back and better than ever before
Being There at the BRL
The BRL originally started looking at robot avatars for co-operative group action around a multi-touch table and found encouraging results on social presence and action awareness. This led to Paul becoming a part of the ‘Being There‘ project team at the BRL and greatly expanding on this work with aims to allow people to participate in interactions in public spaces, even if they are not able to be physically present.
“We’re working on a more purpose designed robot avatar that has humanlike hands more capable of gesturing”
The ‘Being There’ project is part of a larger research area funded by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council on how we present ourselves digitally and looking at how this might extend to physical proxies of our digital selves.
- You may like: Profile: Bristol Robotics Lab
Paul explains: “We found there is something lacking in just being a face on a screen as people are less engaged via screens, have lower social presence, and important body language (e.g. gestures, gaze) goes unnoticed. Hence, we are looking at whether a robot avatar can improve these parts of remote communication.”
Paul adds: “The robot itself is a NAO built by Aldebaran, and allows us to test the principle of a robot avatar without developing hardware first; although we did build the camera helmet for the robot. The system development work I have done is on the software side to allow control of the robot with motion tracking and to stream video to the VR headset.”
“This was the first time I’ve demonstrated the system to an audience larger than a few people”
“A large focus of my work is also on the experimental side, testing ideas for social human-robot interaction that would otherwise be difficult to implement, and recording large amounts of data on human interaction that we can use to develop autonomous behaviours.”
“However, we are also working here at BRL on a more purpose designed robot avatar that has humanlike hands to be more capable of gesturing.”
Introducing robots to a live audience
With TEDxBristol speakers presenting to a huge sell-out audience at Bristol’s Colston Hall, we were keen to find out more about Paul’s experience. He tells us: “This was the first time I’ve demonstrated the system to an audience larger than a few people!”
“It felt strange feeling present somewhere else, and being aware of whether the robot was doing what I wanted it to – trusting it to present as me in a way I’d want to be seen. It had an additional perspective for me as I’d built the system so was very aware of whether it was working properly.”
“What I hope the audience brought home with them is that robots have the potential to help us in our everyday lives in a variety of different ways, and investing in this future is worthwhile.”
Robots of the future
It’s easy to see how robot avatars could become a part of our lives in the future, in our professional lives and perhaps as an extension of social media. However, in his talk, Paul touched on the subject of social isolation and how these robots could help to reconnect commonly isolated groups of people such as the elderly or those who struggle with social communication.
In the lab: Paul testing the robot avatar
Paul explains: “More development work is needed to make it easy for socially isolated people to use, but we hope to be able to trial it with one or two such users towards the end of the project in one year’s time. We have found that doing so will need very user-focused design, and knowledge from much more testing with fully able users. It is a goal we are keen to pursue much more in future projects.”
“A big part of the project is studies involving people interacting with the robot avatar, and we often need participants”
In the meantime, Paul tells us: “A big part of the project is studies involving people interacting with the robot avatar, and we often need participants. Over the next year more of those studies will be done outside the lab, for example I have one planned for January in the At Bristol Science centre.”
If you’d like to get involved with these kinds of projects, you can: “For studies outside the lab you just need to turn up,” explains Paul, “information on upcoming events can be found on the project website: www.being-there.org.uk. For lab studies you need to contact me by email and I can let you know when we need people (you have to be able to get yourself to BRL at UWE’s Frenchay campus).”
Thanks very much to Paul for sparing the time to chat to us. Want to get involved or find out more? You can email Paul at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow the Bristol Robotics Lab on Twitter: @BristolRobotLab.
- You might like: How do I become a robotics designer?