Robots That Jump

Robot Bodies Needed Before Robot Minds

Robots That Jump – Historical Oct 2, 2003

Thursday, October 02, 2003
Robots as part of Interactive Design
At one time, creating computer graphics required a knowledge of programming. However, as computer speed and power advanced, tools were created that moved computer graphics from a programming project to an authoring project. These authoring tools (e.g. Adobe Photoshop) allowed people to develop graphics without constantly having to interface with the underlying computer-ese of computer images.

A similar trend has taken place in animation. A decade ago when “Jurassic Park” was released, artists had to work closely with a team of programmers to create the finished product of robo-dinosaurs. Today, tools like Macromedia Flash allow anyone patient enough its cinema-like user interface to animate. Once again, more power is given to the artist/designer and fewer hard-core programming skills are necessary.

This trend even extends to web design. HTML is a fairly simple language, but for some it is still too much. In addition, creating complex tables in HTML is difficult. With the rise of authoring programs like Macromedia Dreamweaver and Microsoft Frontpage it is possible to make basic pages without understanding HTML. More advanced developers still use these tools because they simplify the creation of complex tables, frames, and Javascript-based interactivity.

In all cases, there are pluses and minuses. On the down side, graphics and animation on computers aren’t very efficient. Flash, for example, uses lots of computing power to do very simple animation, so much so that it has been difficult to put Flash on PDAs and smartphones due to battery drain. The Javascript cranked out by Dreamweaver is awful. On the plus side, people with good design skills but poor programming skills can create graphics and animation. Entire fields of work and departments have grown up with the rise of authoring tools.

Today, we are on the verge of the robotic revolution. For the past several decades (4 for industrial robots and 2 for hobby robots) it has been necessary to learn a programming language to make a robot work. We can therefore predict that one of the main trends during the rise of the robots will be authoring environments to design robot behavior. This will make robots a branch of design, in particular interactive design, formerly called multimedia.

Interactive design differs from other design in that user and environmental interaction is built into the final product. In traditional graphic (read print) design, the audience is passive – there’s no way to modify or alter the experience of looking at a poster or billboard. In contrast, a website only is useful if it is browsed by a visitor, and no two visitors are exactly alike. This means the website must support the interaction of users with a variety of skills, interests, and end goals. It shares this with industrial design, since form and function are united in one place.

Interestingly, Coke recently broke the barrier by designing an interactive billboard. According to an October 1, 2003 article on Reuters:

“Coca-Cola unveiled one of the world’s biggest and most sophisticated billboards on Tuesday — a 30-meter (99-foot) wide neon colossus which can respond to the weather and interact with people looking at it from the ground. ”

The billboard uses a weather sensor and cameras to react to its environment (display raindrops when it is raining) and people (change when people wave to the sign. In time, the billboard will respond to text messages from cellphones. Clearly, classic static graphic design is an endangered species!

Looked at in this respect, robots are clearly interactive objects. The difference between a robot and a “classical” interactive system (e.g. a CD-ROM tutorial) is that the robot is sensitive to the overall environment, as well as the user. In a certain sense, the Coke sign described above is a sort of simple robot. Because of the new layer of complexity, robots are currently programmed by world-class coders.

However, we are beginning to see first-generation authoring tools in the remarkable software suite created by Evolution Robotics (http://www.evolution.com). Unlike other systems which require you to program in C++ or Basic, the Evolution vision system allows coding action chains to sensory stimuli. That is, one could author a “behavior” for the Evolution-enabled robot which allowed it to take a variety of actions based on what it saw. Since this is first-gen software, it seems likely that it will only grow in power and sophistication.

So, in the future circa 2015 there will be autonomous, reasonable intelligent robots that jump – combined with authoring systems giving them specific behaviors, global patterns of behavior, even a particular “style” imposed on behavior. The interface will be simple enough that a non-programmer will be able to author the interaction of the robot with people (like current interactive design/multimedia) plus its interaction with the environment (like current industrial design).

Therefore, robots form a merging of computer-based interactive design (e.g. web programming) and industrial design. What will we call this new field? And how will it come about? Most likely, teaching institutions that current support multimedia and industrial design programs will progressively merge them over the next couple of decades.

This is good news for current multimedia designers – they won’t be limited simply to building websites. In contrast, their experience in handling web-user interactivity will come in useful in developing robot personality. Similarly, industrial designers will have the edge in understanding the interaction of a machine with its environment – how its size, shape, etc. contribue to its purpose. Together, both disciplines will allow authoring of useful future robots.

Who is left out? Looks like graphic design and passive viewer, one-way media (e.g. music, movies) will be in trouble. These areas will have only a superficial contribution to robotics. And if Coke is converting signage from passive to interactive, it looks like interactive skills will be universally required in design.

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