Social Robots Made of Homey Materials to Give a Cheerful Aura to Users

social robots have an artificial intelligence system designed to perform interactions with humans and other robots/ Photo By pasiphae via 123RF


Innovation in robotics has allowed the appearance and presence of robot units in offices, stores, and homes, but they usually have the same appearance: white in color and plastic-looking. So, engineers at Cornell University developed social robots made of homey items, such as wood and wool.

Cornell University engineers created robots with homey materials to indicate their coziness at home, which contrasted the ambiance delivered by conventional social robots. They also developed a platform to enable customization of social robots, based on the preference of specific households. They published the results in ACM Transactions on Human-Robot Interaction.


The Purpose of Social Robots

According to SearchEnterpriseAI, social robots have an artificial intelligence system designed to perform interactions with humans and other robots. As such, they can actually make conversations with people as if they are truly alive. Roboticists and other specialists permitted the deployment of social robots because of their purposes:

- They can help tutor lessons to learners using fun and entertaining methods.

- They can conduct a remote meeting using their body as the physical representation of human attendees.

- They can provide emotional assistance to the elderly, children, and people with disabilities or disorders.

- They can perform actions that engage customers in stores.

- They can do tasks without getting bored or tired.

However, social robots are designed differently to give particular services to users. Some of them can interact independently with their environment, which makes them smart social robots while others are remotely controlled to give representations, which makes them telepresent social robots. Nevertheless, AI and cognitive computing are usually involved in making their actions possible.

At Cornell University, engineers wanted to make social robots homier to decrease the uncomfortable feeling of users. Their study led to a platform called Blossom to create robots from handcrafted materials.

"I noticed a lot of them had a very similar kind of feature – white and plasticky, designed like consumer electronic devices. Especially when these social robots were marketed to be part of our families, I thought it would be strange to all to have identical family members," said Guy Hoffman, an author of the study and an assistant professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering.


Blossom: Inexpensive, Customizable Robot Platform

Professor Hoffman envisioned robots manufactured using homier materials that bring a cozy feeling. He also imagined the robots could be altered by their users, which promote the uniqueness of individual units. The idea solidified when a friend gave him models of crocheted robots. So, he decided to learn how to crochet or the fabric process of interlocking loops of strands, threads or yarn.

Aside from learning insights into a new robot unit, Hoffman also found that crocheting robot would allow non-engineers to participate in the creation process. Eventually, the vision showed the simple, expressive, and inexpensive platform called Blossom.

With Blossom, a robot unit appears more expressive than standard models, allows more people to get the chance to build their own robot, and results in more distinct robot units. But Hoffman needed help to push the platform.

Social robots can provide emotional assistance to the elderly, children, and people with disabilities or disorders/ Photo By abidal via 123RF


The first author of the study and a doctoral student in Hoffman's lab, Michael Suguitan, helped create Blossom. Together, the two designed the open-source platform with a floating head that uses cables and strings for movement, which made its movement more natural and flexible at the same time, compared to a usual robot composed of rigid parts.

A user who has a Blossom robot can control it using their smartphone puppeteering app. The app activates its movements like bouncing, dancing, and stretching. In terms of building one, the kit is simple enough to let anyone learn how to do it without having to study engineering.

Here are the potentials of the Blossom robotic platform:

- Allows children to grasp the foundations of robotics. Kids can help adults in building the robot unit they want.

- Allows kids and adults to improve their handcrafting skills. Most part of the robot construction involves hands-on interactions with homey materials.

- Allows multiple individuals to work on a single robot. They can include accessories and other attachments to make the unit unique.

- Allows researchers who are not engineers to create their own models. The robots can help them study human-robot interactions without wasting loads of resources.

One Blossom would be comprised of wooden materials and soft actuators hidden by the wool or its clothes. This would be the floating head mentioned earlier.

Engineers conducted a case study for Blossom robots that involved children aged four to eight years old. The young participants were permitted to make and control accessories for the platform at a science fair. Some of the kids made appendages or jewelry for Blossom while others showed attachments they could control.

Because of certain attachments made by the kids, such as legs and wings, engineers considered that the participants might have expected that the robot could jump or even fly. However, the current software of the platform prevented those movements until improvements could be implemented.

In a video demonstration, engineers showed that an active Blossom with bunny or cat ears attached to its head can be very expressive. The movements of the ears and the slight bouncing of its entire body mimic a chibi version of the animal. While still in the prototype stage, the robot has machine learning implementation to help it acquire and process information from its surroundings.

At the moment, the cost of the materials for one Blossom robot is about $250, and engineers are planning to create a cardboard-based kit to further lower the cost. They are also working on an algorithm to let Blossom react to YouTube videos, like dancing as a response to a specific song.