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Forget Hearts on Sleeves, Robots May Emote by Glowing Their Ears

We’re interacting more and more with robots in our daily lives, and are soon going to much more–but how exactly does one emotionally interact with one’s ‘bot? New research is trying an unusual tactic: Giving robots expressive eyes, and animal-like ears that glow.

Dreamer robot

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We’re interacting more and more with robots in our daily lives, and are soon going to much more–but how exactly does one emotionally interact with one’s ‘bot? New research is trying an unusual tactic: Giving robots expressive eyes, and animal-like ears that glow.

A research group at UT Austin’s Human Centered Robotics group has been working on the tricky problem of giving humanoid robots an “emotional interface” of sorts–a mechanism by which man-machine interactions are boosted because us fleshy humans can feel like we’re connecting with (and can trust) a mechanical robot more. One route to making robots more “alive” is by giving them a face, obviously–but the human face is a fantastically complex machine, and the way we read the thousands of subtle expressive cues is even more so, as body-language expert Desmond Morris has often attested. So copying a human face is very difficult, resulting in some very awkward androids that look only close to human. Sure, robots can dance, but simultaneously they’re very remote from feeling like they’re real. The new research droid dubbed Dreamer takes a simpler approach that is oddly more successful–it merges highly expressive and mobile robot eyes with animal-like ears that glow.

The rapid eye and coordinated head movements Dreamer can perform are way more realistic than many simulated faces, probably leveraging that “eyes are the windows of the soul” aspect of the way humans interact. And the ears make the most of the way pet dogs can quickly express their emotions with a curled, twisted or raised ear in a way we can understand. The fact that artificial ears can also glow is a benefit, since it adds in more visual cues, making Dreamer one of the most expressive robots we’ve yet seen.

Dreamer also has a body, which the UT Austin team is working on too–they’re trying to give the ‘bot “compliant” qualities, meaning he’ll totter if you bash into him and move his arm if you shake it rather than act like a solid machine–subtle movement cues that humans do all the time. The upshot: When our robot overlords decide to rise up and overthrow us, they’ll do so expressively, and with cutesy faces and dog-like ears that can easily communicate how sorry for us they feel.

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About the author

I'm covering the science/tech/generally-exciting-and-innovative beat for Fast Company. Follow me on Twitter, or Google+ and you'll hear tons of interesting stuff, I promise. I've also got a PhD, and worked in such roles as professional scientist and theater technician...thankfully avoiding jobs like bodyguard and chicken shed-cleaner (bonus points if you get that reference!)

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