How Would You Like To Be Embodied As A Roving Robot, Speaking With Its Voice, Listening With Its Ears And Seeing Through Its Eye?

September 23, 1998

AS robots go, this one doesn't look like much. It rolls on a small four-wheeled base, and its instruments-a video camera, a hand-sized screen and a microphone-perch atop a thin pole. You might be tempted to hang your coat on it, but don't be misled. This is no ordinary robot. With a PC and a connection to the Internet, almost anybody could "become" this robot for a time and explore laboratories, attend lectures or even just hang out with friends.

The robot, or Personal Roving Presence (PRoP) as it is officially known, lives for now at the University of California, Berkeley. A PRoP provides a remotely controlled physical form for people who surf the Internet. Its creators, professor of computer science John Canny and graduate student Eric Paulos, say that these modest, inexpensive robots could make standard teleconferencing obsolete and eventually reduce the need for business travel. "Most meetings are unplanned-you just bump into people in corridors and exchange a few words," says Canny. These kinds of meetings are impossible using current teleconferencing techniques, which take significant organisation. For chatting and observing, a PRoP could be almost as good as being there.

A PRoP operates via a wireless radio link to the World Wide Web. An Internet user logs on to the device and achieves what Canny and Paulos have dubbed "tele-embodiment", seeing what the PRoP sees, listening to what it hears and talking to the people the ProP meets. In theory, any company employee could visit an overseas office using just one PRoP. With a simple program on a PC, the user can control the movement of the robot and look around using its colour video camera. He or she talks through its speaker, listens with its microphone and gestures with the PRoP's small arm. The robot also features a live video image of the user's face on a liquid-crystal display.

With a PRoP you can stroll through a building in some distant location, attend meetings, or pop into offices. The researchers find that one of the most intriguing and useful things a PRoP can do is just "hang out". Since the PRoP in principle can go anywhere, any time, it can be spontaneous in a way that existing teleconferencing techniques certainly can't. A PRoP could let someone in New York spend an hour in a London office, where they might bump into a colleague at the coffee machine and swap a few ideas.

Rich reality

In part, the project began as Canny's reaction to virtual reality. "Rather than having everyone migrating into cyber-space, we want to exploit the richness of reality," he says. His team built the first radio-controlled PRoPs several years ago in the form of helium-filled balloons equipped with tiny cameras, speakers and microphones. These were intended to be wandering observing stations. But the balloons could not carry heavy batteries and tended to drift out of control. "We found the most interesting thing you could do with it was talk to people," says Canny. "Then we realised you could be remotely immersed in an environment. The carts were a natural step."

The carts need little maintenance compared with the balloons. They move forward, turn and move backwards like a remote controlled car. They can also carry large battery packs. A PRoP user pilots the cart, moves its "head" (camera and screen), and controls its pointer from his or her own computer using a mouse. And the robot has an on-board computer to help with video and audio processing. All of the hardware on the latest PRoP is commercially available, and the researchers say the parts cost just over $2000, a price that could drop with mass production.

It even looks cheap although Paulos is defensive about the robot's appearance. "People say it looks rickety," he says. "But it better not look threatening." He lowered the cart's height to its present 1á5 metres after a fellow student said she did not like it looming over her. Safety concerns also dictate much of the design. The latest PRoP weighs just under 9 kilograms, and the researchers have reduced the power and speed of its motor so that a human could stop the PRoP with an outstretched hand. The more physical prowess a PRoP gains, the more harm it could do if guided by a nefarious, careless, or inebriated user. Paulos notes that many of their ideas had to be discarded after looking at worst case scenarios.

By making the PRoP harmless, the researchers hope to reduce legal worries, but incompetent piloting will still be a problem. "I worry most about the thing falling down a stairway and injuring someone that way," says Canny.

Working out how a robot should interact with the world around it is a difficult task. For guidance, Canny and Paulos have enlisted the help of Berkeley social psychologist Gerald Mendelsohn. According to Mendelsohn, influence and trust-building rely heavily on nonverbal aspects of communication such as looking at a person while you talk to them and standing close enough to be heard but far enough away to be non-threatening.

Canny's PRoPs already have some of these abilities off pat. Via the PRoP you can make eye contact with people standing round the robot, look from one person to another, or even stare pensively out of a nearby window. Successful gaze cueing is a great improvement on video conferencing. And with a little practice, anyone can position a PRoP easily.

Say hello, wave goodbye

Gesturing is the next thing, Canny says. The need for the simple pointer became obvious during early trials. In one case, Canny logged onto the Berkeley PRoP while in Massachusetts. He successfully toured the laboratories and spoke to his students, but he ran into a problem. "He was trying to gesture to some drawings on a whiteboard," says Paulos. Canny's only option was to nod awkwardly at the board with the head of the PRoP. In another instance, Paulos decided to attend one of his classes as the PRoP. He took notes from the comfort of his apartment, but he couldn't participate fully. "I realised that I couldn't ask questions without just yelling out," he says.

A full robotic version of a human arm would both escalate costs and complicate the user's control of the robot, so the researchers are optimistically trying to cut corners. "Muppets can be pretty expressive," Canny says. "And they don't have many degrees of freedom." The most recent PRoP has a simple stick, with a laser pointer that can pivot from side to side and tilt up and down.

The project has just now reached a rigorous testing phase, and the researchers say so far, so good. The importance of direct feedback has surprised them. PRoP users feel much more immersed in their remote locale when they can look down and see the wheels rolling or the pointer moving according to their requests. "Every time we run it, we see new ways to improve it," says Paulos.

Canny predicts that PRoPs will first permeate academic research laboratories, then corporate research facilities, and eventually the corporate business world. But using PRoPs to visit the in-laws is still some way off, alas.

Brandon Brown is an assistant professor of physics at the University of San Francisco

This story appears in New Scientist issue 26th September 1998


New Scientist

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