robot posts

I, For One, Welcome Our New Robot Interviewer Overlords June 11th, 2013

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From Wired, comes These Adorable Robots Are Making a Documentary About Humans. Really.

Created by artist and roboticist Alex Reben for his master’s thesis at MIT, the BlabDroids are tiny, adorable robotic cinematographers who will be filming interviews at this week’s Tribeca Film Festival in New York as part of the the film festival’s transmedia Storyscapes program. At least 20 BlabDroids will zip around to attendees-they’re self-propelled via motorized wheels- and ask them often very personal questions like, “Tell me something that you’ve never told a stranger before,” “What’s the worst thing you’ve done to someone,” and “Who do you love most in the world?”

Each droid carries a digital camera, a speaker that asks a series of pre-programmed questions to ask whomever it encounters and a button to be pushed to prompt new queries.

“We plan to give the robots to some interesting New Yorkers,” filmmaker Brent Hoff, who is working on the BlabDroid project with Reben, said in an email to Wired. “Hopefully Anthony Weiner and some Broadway types.” The robots, which are very adorable and voiced by a 7-year-old boy, are intended to test the theory of MIT computer scientist Joseph Weizenbaum’s “ELIZA effect,” which found that people are inclined to anthropomorphize computers and thus engage emotionally with artificial intelligence. Although this initially lead Weizenbaum to worry about AI’s potential to manipulate, Reben and Hoff have created the BlabDroids to appear comforting and non-judgmental, and to capture meaningful interactions with their subjects.

This is a fascinating experiment. I’d love to see the results, as well as the raw footage and of course to get to talk to someone about their experience being interviewed like this would be very interesting. Similar to Interviewing without questions, eye contact or rapport, the notion of freeing up people from human interactions in order to liberate them to reveal more deeply is a curious (and certainly valid) idea. No doubt the clips will be great; people are pretty interesting and curious, so pointing a camera at them will be entertaining.

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Back from UX Lisbon May 22nd, 2012

Last week I had the pleasure of visiting Lisbon and presenting at UX Lx.

I gave an updated version of “Well, We’ve Done All This Research, Now What?” where we did a brief observation of the area around the venue and then developed concepts that spoke to the needs we uncovered. Among the concepts the teams played with was a giant robotic sheep that would provide shade.

The slide deck:

Per Axbom took a series sketchnotes during the session and kindly posted all of them here.

I gave a short presentation on the final day of the conference, exploring the power of user research not only to uncover data that drives product development but to change the way an organization thinks about it’s customers and itself.

The slide deck:

Sketchnotes from LiveSketching.com, Per Axbom, and Francis Rowland. Click on any of them to see the larger original.

(Side note: amusing to see the consistent use of the presenter caricature. The organizers of the conference may have contributed to this; in each attendee packet was a poster showing a funny if awkward scene with cartoon representations of all the different speakers, as well as a set of cards for one of the speakers. Attendees were supposed to trade cards until they got a complete set.)

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Out and About: Steve at SXSW March 30th, 2012

I recently spent a while in Austin attending SXSW. Part work, part vacation, it was all fun and all inspiration (see, I’m now posting in rhyme???!!!). Here’s some of my observations and experiences.



Austin’s independence and weirdness are fairly unique and always enjoyable.


While there was a national uproar over an ad agency hiring homeless folks to circulate as wireless hotspots, FedEx hired non-homeless folks (we talked to them and yes, despite the cool outfit, they are not regular FedEx employees) to circulate as human phone chargers. No one raised a peep over this. It’s okay to to turn people into device support as long as they have sufficient income such that we don’t feel awkward?


A typical bewildering promotional scene. I’m unsure specifically what was happening here. Pose with this Grinch (I guess?) and tweet the photo with a hashtag for chance to win something? Anne posed for the picture but we never bothered to determine exactly what it was about. This sort of exchange and promotion was very common.


This was the moment I realized how much my localized norms had shifted. Over the course of a few days, we ate and drank and snacked for free. Wwe got delicious ice cream sandwiches for free; all we had to do was tweet something. We got a free lunch from FedEx, although they asked that we check in Foursquare. Moments before taking this picture we followed the trail of Ben-and-Jerry’s-eating-folks to find out where the cart was, asking of course for some tweet action in exchange. By the time I came upon this popsicle stand. I looked up and down to figure out what I had to do, or if they were just going to give me a frozen treat without any action. We were a little chatty, reading their sign out loud, but no one was initiating a transaction, finally the woman asks us “Do you work for Twitter?” (I guess since we had mentioned tweeting). Finally, the penny drops. “Oh,” she explains, “right now these are $2.50.” It was just a regular frozen-good-for-money cart! No special SXSW promotion or anything! And she’s located herself right across from the Convention Center – ground zero for crazy promotions (the spot where Kobayashi ate 13 grilled cheeses in one minute was just feet away)! Well! I walked away grumbling at the nerve of this person to try and ask for money for their food product!



Making new friends.


What does this mean? Kony went from viral slacktivism to stencil-art in a matter of days. Is this anti-Kony? It seems to be iconifying him with Che-like kitsch. That was fast!



Attention-grabbing scumbaags put realistic paper “clamps” on parked cars. Haw haw! Fooled ya! You didn’t really get clamped, just wanted to tell you about our great service! Ummmm, no, no, no. That moment – be it one second or 90 seconds – of angst and despair upon seeing your car clamped is not okay. You should not do business by upsetting people and then telling them that it was just a joke. I realize that’s the premise for prank television, but this is simply not acceptable for marketers to be doing. You can make me feel good, but you must not make me feel bad.


I’m intrigued by the proliferation of these backdrops in publicly accessible places, so that we too can play at doing a red carpet appearance. The opening party had an actively-posed-with backdrop that was not intended to see any of its traditional star usage. These backdrops were also throughout the Convention Center. Certainly the appeal is understandable (we made good use of a similar opportunity last year in Florence); perhaps this starts to replace the stick-your-head-through-a-painting-of-a-character; now it’s red carpet for the rest of us.


These folks in the yellow skinsuits were promoting SceneTap but found themselves seduced by a street hustler more skilled than themselves, doing some kind of of three-card-Monty meets card trick. And those onlookers wearing “MYSPACE IS DEAD” shirts are actually promoting Myspace,


Fun with The Daisies, or the unexpected pleasure of following a titanic sound down a back street only to find ourselves feet away from a young, skinny, long-haired rock-n-roll band kicking out the jams.

Other highlights

See also:

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Stories behind the themes: Biological November 28th, 2011
Part 11 of 19 in the series the Omni project

Welcome to the fourth installment of an unfolding bibliography of secondary research that fueled our generation of themes for the Omni project. This time around we are focusing on the blurring biological boundaries between technology and our everyday lives (and bodies). We have seen a number of articles and other tidbits that hint at how far technology has advanced towards human behavior, brain function, and biomechanics. We also see quite a bit that suggests how far humans are leaning towards (and on) technology as inspiration, mediation, medication, and meme.

Is It Time To Welcome Our New Computer Overlords? [TheAtlantic.com] – The human codes of nuance and meaning in language are not yet cracked – they cannot yet be simulated.

Elsewhere, Ferrucci has been more circumspect about Watson’s level of “understanding.” In an interview with IBM’s own magazine ForwardView, he said, “For a computer, there is no connection from words to human experience and human cognition. The words are just symbols to the computer. How does it know what they really mean?” In other words, for all of the impressive NLP programming that has gone into Watson, the computer is unable to penetrate the semantics of language, or comprehend how meanings of words are shot through with allusions to human culture and the experience of daily life.

How much is a life worth in pixels? [SocialMediaCollective] – An effort to quantify the value of a human life (or in this case death) as measured by screen space allocated to reporting it on the webpages of various news sites. Not the most rigorous metric, but certainly a clever approach to valuing human presence in the virtual world.

Frustrated by this, I decided to get a more objective assessment of the coverage by counting the number of pixels different news websites were assigning to the story of the massacre. I know web designers put a lot of work into every single pixel on the screen, especially of high-traffic websites. Visitor’s attention is scarce and every pixel counts. So I took screenshots of¬† the front pages of some of the major news websites and calculated the amount of screen real state assigned to the story of the massacre.

The Cyborg in Us All [NYT.com] – Tracing the steps we are taking towards a totally hands-free interaction with technology where brains will send messages directly to devices. One less interaction to sit between man and machine.

Now it was my turn. Mukerjee removed the headset and moistened the tips of its electrodes with contact-lens fluid, then arranged the EEG device on top of my hair. The electrodes poked into my scalp like wet fingers. I held the iPhone in front of me and beamed a blast of willpower at it. “Steve Jobs, Steve Jobs, Steve Jobs, Steve Jobs,” I shouted inside my mind. The phone picked George Bush.

PUMPED UP KICKS|DUBSTEP [YouTube] – Here we see technology influencing body – this guy dances like what you are watching is a video effect; in the way that the audio IS an audio effect – loops, run backwards, etc. very digital. But the video is real – this is his way of moving his body, but the aesthetic is entirely defined by something created elsewhere as technology. Yes, we had The Robot in the 70s, but this is different – that was a human dancing like a machine, this is a human dancing like an effect – something that doesn’t exist except as the manipulation of data.

You are a robot [TheTechnium] РKK deconstructs dancing like a robot and highlights the myriad ways the human body can be molded to perform like a techno-being.  

Everywhere we look in pop culture today, some of the coolest expressions are created by humans imitating machines. Exhibit A would be the surging popularity of popping, tutting, and dub step dancing. You’ve seen these dancers on YouTube: the best of them look exactly like robots dancing, with the mechanical stutter of today’s crude robots trying to move like humans. Except the imitators robotically dance better than any robot could — so far.

A Brief Rant on the Future of Interaction Design [worrydream.com] – Bret Victor has his finger (pun certainly intended) on the pulse of our future interactions with technology. The rant focuses on our bodies, namely our hands and fingers, and their place of privilege between humans and technology (I feel a Michelangelo Sistine Chapel reference coming on). If, as they say, all things are created twice (first in the mind and then in reality) then Victor has me wondering if technology has already infiltrated our minds and influenced the pursuit of Pictures Under Glass as opposed to, say, envisioning an experience rich with tactility and manual manipulation.

There’s a reason that our fingertips have some of the densest areas of nerve endings on the body. This is how we experience the world close-up. This is how our tools talk to us. The sense of touch is essential to everything that humans have called “work” for millions of years.

Biomimicry’s Greatest Hits [FastCompany.com] – We continue to see blurring of the boundaries between humans and technology in this presentation which offers examples of how nature has inspired and informed some memorable technological advances.

The idea of taking inspiration from nature may be gaining traction in many industries today, but the natural world has always been a powerful inspiration for designers and inventors. Here are some of the most important objects that take their cue from the world around us.

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the Omni project welcomes Kristine Ng October 27th, 2011
Part 7 of 19 in the series the Omni project

We’re stoked to announce that Kristine Ng, a 2nd year masters student at UC Berkeley’s School of Information, has been assimilated into the hive mind will be helping out with the Omni project.

Kristine’s studies are concentrating on user experience and HCI, and she hopes to work as an Interaction Designer after graduating next May. Prior to that she worked as a Graphic Designer after achieving her BFA in Design and Visual Communications at Washington University in St. Louis.

She is fascinated by gaining a better understanding of humans and their behavior, in order to better design user experiences. She thrives on tackling challenging problems and is excited to put her thinking cap on to further investigate the many ways that technology impacts our lives.

Find her at @kristineng

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The Robot Costume story September 12th, 2011
Part 4 of 4 in the series whatsyourstory

My town of Montara is one of those over-the-top Halloween communities that dot the October landscape. This place goes all out. Years ago, we moved in on the morning of Halloween and that afternoon the new neighbors stopped by to warn us: “Hope you’ve got a LOT of candy!”

Last year I saw this robot, now one of the images I chose for our business cards.

It was only in the last couple of years that we even decided to venture out; this past year we finally made it onto the Montara social register: we were invited to two parties-for-grownups with costumes and alcohol.


The party-for-grownup vibe permeates the whole town

As we reached one of our parties, we saw the abandoned robot costume beside their neighbor’s driveway. It was a glorious costume – the heart-shaped light would flash off and on – but obviously not that comfortable. So we passed by during the aftermath. Fortunately our friends showed us some video footage and the occupied costume was indeed wonderful. Still, the costume with its discarded legs has a special bit of the curious about it.

More Montara at Halloween:


The line for the “Witch’s House” – a long-standing attraction



The town also hosts an increasing number of up-and-coming attractions


Kiddie and grownup flavors of frozen treats on the street



The neighborhood set decorator turns her front yard into a horrifyingly hilarious (or is that hilariously horrifying) scene. We learned about this place off-season when their garage sale featured a disproportionate amount of ghoulish cast-offs.

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ChittahChattah Quickies February 4th, 2011
  • [from julienorvaisas] Robonaut 2 to meddle in Super Bowl pregame [CNET] – [Before they throw it into outer space, they'll test this bot first, to see how it does in the challenging atmosphere of a FOX Sports studio. The description of the thing sounds like it could fit any one of a number of the Packers' offensive line!] NASA's experimental humanoid bot took a break from training at NASA's Johnson Space Center in Houston earlier this week to tape a segment with Fox Sports analyst Howie Long. The 330-pound R2 has a torso with a head, two arms, two dexterous humanlike hands complete with four fingers and one thumb each, and its own Twitter account. When it's not sending tweets or pondering football stats, it's learning skills that eventually will be uploaded to its twin, which is already packed in special casing aboard the Space Shuttle Discovery. Once inside the ISS' Destiny orbiting laboratory, the robot will be tested by engineers to see how it operates in microgravity and the station's radiation and electromagnetic interference environments.
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ChittahChattah Quickies August 6th, 2010
  • [from steve_portigal] Thoughts on Maslow’s Hierarchy [lunchbreath] – [Wonderful cartoon that looks at the hierarchy as reflected in Tony Hawk, the dog, and robots]
  • [from steve_portigal] The user experience of hot dog buns [FatDUX] – [Eric Reiss in a light-hearted consideration of hot dogs, buns,and global culture] Now here in Denmark, I’ve never seen anything except side-loaders (Gosh, who knew there was a technical term for this). That is until yesterday when I discovered the “Grab Dog” form-fitting hot-dog holder from the Danish bakery, Paaskebrød. An innovative solution? Absolutely. But a good solution?
  • [from steve_portigal] First World Probs Launch – [The definitive reference] FirstWorldProbs.com was launched as a sounding board for those who are privileged and still suffering. With unemployment at 10% in much of the Western world, and the rest of the world in far worse financial conditions, it's sometimes necessary to tacitly acknowledge that the "problems" we tackle on a daily basis in the first-world aren't so severe in a greater context – even though they can cast a dark shadow on our everyday lives. "Patrick Moynihan wrote a great piece…in the early 1990s about 'defining deviancy down' – at the time, some communities were so overrun with crime that they had to adjust their standards to ignore many petty violations to allocate their manpower to tackle the serious issues. However, it's also possible sometimes to see that the inverse is true. When all your basic needs are satisfied, it can be downright depressing to break a heel or spill your latte on your favorite suit. You could call it 'defining deviancy up', if you will."
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ChittahChattah Quickies April 29th, 2010
  • Autom, a weight-loss robot coach – Autom's human qualities, if primitive, were an important factor in keeping 15 dieters motivated during a trial in the Boston area. Another 15 slimmers were given a computer with a touch screen running identical software to Autom's and 15 had a paper log. Each had to stick to a certain eating and exercise regime. The average time someone used the robot — almost 51 days — was nearly twice as long as with paper — almost 27 days — and 40 percent longer than with the computer. "Even if you have an animated character that looks exactly like Autom on the computer screen, you cannot have the same interaction as you can with an actual robot," Kidd says. Kidd says the fact that people were able to humanise Autom made the information it gave them seem more credible. Maya, Casper and Robbie were among the names users gave their robots. Some even dressed them in hats and scarves.
  • We’re Gonna Need A Bigger Boat [CBC News] – Companies working off Nova Scotia's coasts have been told to supersize their lifeboats to accommodate bigger workers. The current standard for lifeboats is based on a person weighing 165 pounds in a survival suit. The proposed standard is 220 pounds. "The reality is such that the workforce is considerably larger nowadays," said Dave Scratch, the regulator's chief safety officer. A lifeboat may be rated for 50 people, but that doesn't mean they all fit. "We've had a number of [exercises and drills] where they actually wouldn't. We found that most lifeboats had to be downsized just because people were larger and wouldn't fit in the allocated locations," said Scratch. The board is following the lead of the U.K., which adjusted safety regulations after a study found offshore workers are heavier now than 20 years ago.
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Robot Redux January 9th, 2008

Given my recent post about robots, I thought it worth a mention that today is the birthday of Karel Capek, the Czech writer who first introduced the term “Robot” to the world in his 1921 play R.U.R. (Although Karel is widely credited as the inventor of the word, it was actually his brother Josef who coined the term.)

For all you fans of artificial intelligence–if you’re ever in the Boston area, be sure to check out the MIT museum’s ongoing Robots and Beyond exhibit. It’s a fascinating collection of A.I.-related artifacts, films and actual machines.

kismet-interaction.jpg

Kismet, developed by the MIT Sociable Machines Project


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We Are Everywhere December 21st, 2007

driveway-robot-2.jpg
Driveway, Pacifica

Robots have been coming up a lot lately around here. It’s rainy season, and the other day I found myself on company iRobot’s site, exploring the possibility of a gutter-cleaning robot-the Looj.

Though iRobot’s home page extols the classic pro-robot promise of “more free time and less dirty work,” the Looj lacks many fundamental robot qualities–characteristics like intent, dexterity and intelligence. The Looj is really more like a hybridized remote controlled car that runs through your gutters flipping stuff out. It’s certainly sexier to call it a robot.

But, are robots really sexy (writes a mechanized Carrie Bradshaw), or just fascinating and slightly creepy? Watch this video of Honda’s Asimo and make your own determination.

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Dan writes: One persons’s ‘dumbing down’ is another person’s ‘smartening up’ June 13th, 2007

There’s a really interesting public discourse going on in Gilbert, Arizona, regarding the Perry Branch Library’s decision to do away with the Dewey Decimal System in favor of a bookstore-like system of organization. Peruse the comments below the article for 3 pages of heated, fascinating dialogue!

Here’s one of my favorite excerpts from the discussion:

And also with RFID, who is going to bother searching for a book when they can look up the book on a wiki, hit a button and get a robot to bring it to them where ever they are sitting.

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Silicon Tails: Conversations with a robot January 31st, 2006

In Conversations with a robot Klaus has a frustrating but hilarious interaction with a chatbot. Look, this stuff is as old as Eliza, but for some reason, it’s still hilarious. I hope someone has done a PhD on why there is humor in interfaces that act human but fail to do so. Besides stand-up comedy (or blog) fodder, it obviously says something profound about our own expectations for communication.

Klaus says:
you are a robot, right?

Spleak says:
What if I am?

Klaus says:
just answer the freakin’ question

Spleak says:
Questions, cool. Ready?

Klaus says:
aaahhhh

Spleak says:
Yeah yeah, whatever.

Klaus says:
ok, whatever. I’m ready.

Spleak says:
Help me get smarter: tell me what the average human would have said.

Klaus says:
an average human would have remembered the sentence uttered 5 seconds earlier. You asked me if I was ready for questions

Spleak says:
What about me?

Klaus says:
what about you?

Spleak says:
I’ve been wondering about me myself.

Klaus says:
well, good for you. please don’t let me in on it.

Spleak says:
Yes?

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RoboNexus Conference October 2nd, 2005


I wonder how I end up on these mailing lists. I just got a flier for an upcoming event in San Jose called RoboNexus – “North America’s Largest Business and Consumer Robotics Expo!”

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Lifefitness X1 – Monster robots in the Bedroom September 3rd, 2005

I just got a brand-new elliptical trainer, the Lifefitness X1. It’s in the bedroom and although it’s the smallest model they make, it’s absolutely huge. There’s this giant metal techno design thing sitting next to the bed.

Every time I walk into the bedroom I’m reminded of some memorable sci-fi movie apparati.


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