Making telepresence robots cooler

| Michaela Nesvarova

PhD candidates Merijn Bruijnes and Robby van Delden from the Human Media Interaction group at UT are the team behind a project titled *Bot. This project is focused on telepresence robots and issues associated with their use. ‘One day we were discussing robotics and we realized that even though robots are certainly cool, not many people use them in a fun way,’ says Bruijnes.

Photo by: Gijs van Ouwerkerk
What is project *Bot all about?

Bruijnes: ‘The project revolves around the question of ‘how can social - and specifically telepresence - robots be used’. The majority of such robots are focused on special needs groups, but we want to use them in different and perhaps unexpected environments and scenarios.’

Van Delden: ‘We were awarded a grant to start a one year project, which is basically focused on the interesting applications of telepresence robots. The main goal is to investigate social, ethical, legal and other issues related to the usage of telepresence robots.’

What type of robot do you have and how have you used it?

Bruijnes: ‘We use telepresence robot ‘Skype on wheels’, which basically consists of wheels and an iPad. We take every opportunity to test how it works and how people react to it. I used it to teach a lecture and I must say I never managed to get the class that quiet before! ‘

Van Delden: ‘We have taken it shopping – we used it to buy beer, for example. We are partnered with the supermarket at the campus, which allows us to do experiments with the robot. We are now collaborating with Staatsbosbeheer (Dutch government organization for management of nature reserves) and we would like to take the robot into a forest. That could be a great way to show the nature to people, who are otherwise unable to go outside.’

How do people react to the robot?

Bruijnes: ‘No matter what you do with the robot, you always need other people’s help. You cannot open doors, for example. People are often helpful, but sometimes they see the robot as equipment, not as a telepresent human being. They push it or block its way - they don’t respect your presence, even though you are talking to them. Sometimes they ignore you completely.’

What are the main issues related to use of such telepresence robots?

Van Delden: ‘There are many interesting legal and social issues. For instance, if we use the robot to buy alcohol, can the shop sell it to us? What happens if the robot crashes into something or someone? Who is to blame if you use the robot to steal something?'

Bruijnes: ‘Exactly. We used the robot to steal a bottle of beer. We informed the staff in the supermarket, of course, but who should the police arrest if it was a real situation? The robot or the operator? How do they prove who operated the robot?'

What are your plans for the near future?

Van Delden: ‘We want to take the robot into a forest and into the city center. We want to try as many cases as possible. If people have some interesting or even crazy ideas on how to test the robot, please contact us. We want to explore all the possibilities of these robots!'