Article written by Greg Tucker, Senior Product Manager, Sharp Electronics Corp., Robolliance Expert
Function needs to meet form for robotic success
There seems to be a bias in the robotics industry for either cute and cuddly or stark and utilitarian forms or designs. As the use of robots increases and the tasks they undertake spread into more areas the variety of product appearances will increase. These forms will mature and more deliberately meet the environments in which the robot will function and the purposes that they are expected to fulfill.
For robots, as with most products, the first rule needs to be ‘do the job’. This requirement drives the basic design and feature direction, but doing the job is often more than physically performing a series of tasks. These tasks take place within business and personal environments. Form that complements the environment can make significant difference in both acceptance and effectiveness. The rise of collaborative robots intensifies this need.
If a robots image does not match its intended environment and purpose this could cause confusion, decrease effectiveness or unintentionally encourage people to hinder its work and, in some cases, puts people in danger.
People have an awareness of appearance needing to match their environment. As a young man my work was physical and involved being on my feet in harsh environments for long periods of time. I found military footwear, AKA “combat boots”, to work best for me. When I moved into an office it was necessary to adjust my style to the new workplace. I still wear boots but now the style will not cause my office neighbors to wonder if I am planning an assault over the cube wall for more space. This same issue applies to robots. Their form should be appropriate to the workplace where they will be used.
In home and personal care the image should make people feel comfortable and safe in close proximity. Consumer floor cleaning robots are designed to look unintimidating and appliance-like although with their low ground position they could easily look similar to some of the vehicles seen in the arena on robot competition shows. No one wants to worry their vacuum may attack the cat while they are away. This is basic utilitarian design with some curves for a home friendly look. In contrast, a gutter cleaning robot would be all hard brushes on a rotating spindle. Something that should be kept outside in the shed or garage, for everyone’s safety. Its job wholly drives its form.
In the health care environment a friendly appearance is important since people will be interacting directly. Suitable designs use flowing curves with soft materials, maybe even inflatable to provide a soft touch experience. The use of an anthropomorphically inquisitive facial design, think cartoon character, gives the patient the reassuring impression of gentle concern. Some current robot products being developed for the medical field are clearly moving in this direction.
In the industrial and materials handling sector, people and robots are working in closer proximity. Designs are being implemented to improve safety and make workers feel comfortable around the robots. Newer production robots are good examples; some use a Liquid Crystal Display (LCD) showing animated eyes which enhance both safety and human comfort with the robot. The eyes are programmed to indicate its next direction of movement and forewarn, in a ‘natural’ way, so humans can anticipate the flow of work to enhance productivity, acceptance and worker safety.
In military and police environments, robots are intentionally designed to be angular and intimidating. The tasks they do and the environments where they are deployed are inherently dangerous and are not improved by people saying “oh, how cute.” This is not the commercial environment of the other examples, however it is a prime example of utilitarian design where there is little or nothing on the vehicles not required by function, they are mostly treads and arms with the only aesthetic treatment being a coat of black paint.
There are many more examples than listed here where the robots job can direct its form. In several environments, robots do not need to be remarkable, such as delivery robots inside warehouses, medical or manufacturing facilities. Little in their environments warrants the added cost of creative design and materials. Form becomes more important where the robot is in public view, with a job that faces outwards from the business. Some robots need to attract attention, a customer service and information robot in a store for example. Some fall right in between and the field of security is a good example.
Security in the commercial sector focuses on several purposes. To provide deterrence that makes the “bad guys” head elsewhere, and additionally to reassure people that they are protected. Another function of security is to provide information and visitor assistance, for this reason the reception desk is often under the responsibility of security. In most cases, the desired presence level is not the same as a police force. Commercial security needs to be visible but not overly intimidating. A little show of force or presence is good but too much makes people uncomfortable.
In a security robot this need for deterrence and protection without creating unease should be balanced. Too intimidating, for example repurposing military and police robots, does not match the business environment. Too friendly risks being ineffective and may invite behavior that should be prevented. An overly “cute” security robot may have people interrupting its patrols, or worse, moving into restricted areas to see it, take a picture with it or give it a hug and placing themselves in danger.
Finding the right balance for the many roles and environments that robots will operate in over the coming years is a challenging mixture of design art and engineering science. To set themselves apart from the competition a company must successfully implement form and function to create effective products that complement the environment where they will be deployed.