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UBC researchers breathe life into Charlie the robot

Charlie might look like a robot but soon he’ll be acting like a human.

University of British Columbia researchers are working on improving communication between people and robots through human-like body language and cues. The team has enlisted the help of Charlie to study the particulars of handing an object to a person.

“We hand things to other people multiple times a day and we do it seamlessly,” said AJung Moon, a Department of Mechanical Engineering PhD student. “Getting this to work between a robot and a person is really important if we want robots to be helpful in fetching us things in our homes or at work.”

While working with Charlie, researchers are attempting to improve upon past research that has shown human and robot interaction to be confusing, like knowing when to reach out and grab an object from a nonverbal robot.

“We want the robot to communicate using the cues that people already recognize,” Moon said. “This is key to interacting with a robot in a safe and friendly manner.”

Moon and her team have paid close to attention to how people use their heads, necks and eyes when they hand water bottles to one another. Then they tested three variations of this interaction with Charlie and 102 study participants.

When Charlie was programmed to use eye gaze as a nonverbal cue, it made the human-robot interaction easier, according to the study. The team of researchers found that people reached out to take the water bottle sooner in scenarios where the robot moved its head to look where it would hand over the bottle, and then made eye contact with the person.

The study has already been recognized by recently winning best paper at the IEEE International Conference on Human-Robot Interaction.

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