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Flying robot actors

December 8, 2010

Around a year ago, theater-goers at Texas A&M discovered Shakespeare’s play “A Midsummer Night’s Dream”. The plot unfolds in a magical forest inhabited by fairies. To add to the otherworldly feel of the play, one large remote controlled quadroter and six palm sized helicopters, in their LED costumes, were used to complement the performance of “human fairies”.



Cooperating with people from theater is interesting because of their expertise in predicting how spectators will interpret the behavior of agents and what to do to make the agents believable. Furthermore, the theater is an ideal large-scale testbed to study the response of “untrained” humans (the audience and actors) to robots.

After four weeks of practice and eight performances, Murphy et al. came up with an impressive analysis of how robots were perceived. First, they identify three ways robots can generate emotional or cognitive impact (affect):

  • 1) The audience interprets the motion of robots as if they were living creatures (animacy). In one example, helicopters flying in rhythm to the music were deemed “excited by the music”.
  • 2) Actors, through their theatrical interaction with the robots, give them a meaning. Fairies scolding or cooing helicopters, and the fact that the robots would land in their hands, made the audience interpret them as “baby fairies”.
  • 3) Robots, through their behavior, are able to convey meaning. In the play, helicopters were able to play sounds and perform easy to interpret motions that were assimilated to mocking or joy.

Furthermore, the paper is a beautiful account of how people react to robots and assume they are safe and robust. Examples include approaching 1m quadrotors up close, throwing helicopters like a baseball to make them take off or assuming small helicopters will stay in the air if you waive your hands around them. The work also provides a nice summary of all the unintended situations that can arise (see table below) and the need of improvisation to deal with them.

For the future, Murphy et al. are planning new productions where robots have key roles!

Sabine Hauert is lecturer at the Bristol Robotics Laboratory and co-founder of Robohub, the Robots Podcast and the Autonomous Robots blog... read more


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