Irish and Brazilian students create next-gen social robots for the elderly

Posted on: 29 November 2016

Student engineers from Trinity College Dublin and the University of Sao Paolo have spent the last year collaborating on next-gen social robots whose main future application will see them support the elderly.

With populations in most countries featuring ever-higher proportions of elderly people, unique solutions must be found to adequately support our more senior citizens. Assistance robots, with high-tech social interaction interfaces, may help in this regard. As well as simply keeping people company, they may — in the not too distant future — perform everyday tasks around the home on command, or even react to situations as they occur.

The students, learning the importance of collaborating while innovating, devised a social interaction system that tapped into the science of psychology and social anthropology as well as mechanics and engineering.

Assistant Professor of Mechanical and Manufacturing Engineering at Trinity College Dublin, Kevin Kelly, oversaw the project, with Professor Eduardo Zancul from the University of Sao Paolo.

Professor Kelly said: “We both share a passion for user-centred design and a belief that the drive, energy and imagination of our students can produce wonderful results. The opportunity arose this year to bring that fertile combination together on an innovation project in social robotics. This grew out of work that we’ve being doing in Trinity on developing domestic robots, particularly for helping the elderly and disabled communities.

“While we’d been working hard on the mechanical development, we knew that we also needed to address how these robots could interact with people. That is a really challenging problem, because you have to take into account the users preferences and needs, the habituation — where the robot and person get to know each other over a long period of time — and the complexity and range of tasks that the robot will need to manage. There are also the possibilities that can be ‘unlocked’ by a good social interface – think of what the touchscreen has done for the mobile phone, and the mouse for the computer.”

The students who worked on the robots needed to embrace the latest research from a very wide range of domains, including sociology, healthcare, ergonomics, communication, psychology, electronics, manufacturing, and anthropology.

Professor Kelly added: “The team chose to build a digital display housed in an anthropomorphic head, which allowed an animated face without the complexity that an animatronic head would require. It also allows the display to change/evolve over time, so the robot’s face could grow older with the user — if we choose to do that!

“Our user testing and need-finding showed us though that a purely computer-animated head wasn’t enough – we needed to have some physical motion, so we can rotate, tilt and nod the head. That combination of ‘facial expression’ and head motion replicates quite well how we communicate person to person – for example if a person is curious they will often raise their eyebrows and tilt their head slightly to one side.

“We drew upon a concept in psychology called the Geneva Emotional Wheel to develop a representative range of ‘emotions’ that our face could express in a way that our user base could easily and unambiguously understand. We then tested that extensively with our target users.”

The students recently showcased their work at a special event at Stanford University, at which other bilateral innovation teams from partner universities around the world were present.

Work is ongoing in Trinity in the area of social and personal-assistance robots, and Professor Kelly is still working with Professor Eduardo Zancul on this project. The pair hope to further strengthen collaboration between the two institutions, and to facilitate further student exchanges in the future.

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