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Robotics Science

"Tweenbots" Test NYC Pedestrian-Robot Relations 197

MBCook recommends Kacie Kinzer's tweenbots page, which documents some of her experiments with small, anthropomorphized robots that need help. Kinzer is writing a thesis (at the Center for the Recently Possible) centered around investigating whether people in New York City will help a cute little robot to get where it's going. "Tweenbots are human-dependent robots that navigate the city with the help of pedestrians they encounter. Rolling at a constant speed, in a straight line, Tweenbots have a destination displayed on a flag, and rely on people they meet to read this flag and to aim them in the right direction to reach their goal."
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"Tweenbots" Test NYC Pedestrian-Robot Relations

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  • Cute robot (Score:5, Interesting)

    by Alarindris ( 1253418 ) on Saturday April 11, 2009 @06:40PM (#27545045)
    I wonder what would happen if he had a frowny face? Or changing the wording on the flag to be less helpless or even rude?

    I've always wondered if I took a postcard, wrote someone's name and city to be delivered to, and gave it to a random person. Would it ever get there? I'm going to try it tonight.
  • Uhm.. (Score:3, Interesting)

    by GMThomas ( 1115405 ) on Saturday April 11, 2009 @06:40PM (#27545051) Homepage
    I can't imagine this being entirely safe. What if someone points it where it rolls out into the middle of a busy intersection, and somebody slams on their brakes or swerves to avoid it, causing an accident or hitting a pedestrian?
  • by rduke15 ( 721841 ) <rduke15@gma[ ]com ['il.' in gap]> on Saturday April 11, 2009 @06:44PM (#27545079)

    In New York (some 20 years ago) I was surprised by how nice and helpful the people are in the street. If I just pulled out a map to have a look at it, people would stop and ask if they could help me.

    I doubt these robots would survive and reach their destinations in Paris, for example. But it would be interesting to try. I may be wrong.

    (I live neither in Paris nor in NY, and am neither French nor American)

  • unbelievable (Score:4, Interesting)

    by v1 ( 525388 ) on Saturday April 11, 2009 @06:45PM (#27545081) Homepage Journal

    Every time the robot got caught under a park bench, ground futilely against a curb, or became trapped in a pothole, some passerby would always rescue it and send it toward its goal. Never once was a Tweenbot lost or damaged. Often, people would ignore the instructions to aim the Tweenbot in the âoerightâ direction, if that direction meant sending the robot into a perilous situation.

    I'd have lost that bet. Maybe I'm too cynical.

    But the one example they showed was entirely within a city park. I can't imagine this working in the city, the odds of it getting ran over would have to approach 1:1 most other places.

    I wonder if the sidewalk it was traveling down (to the south) had a physical barrier blocking it from going further south? (toward traffic) In that respect I would expect the locations were carefully chosen to minimize risk.

  • Re:unbelievable (Score:4, Interesting)

    by v1 ( 525388 ) on Saturday April 11, 2009 @06:56PM (#27545133) Homepage Journal

    I bet they are as basic as it gets, they probably bought one of those $19 radio shack remote control cars, you know the ones with a single button remote that makes it back up while turning the wheel, removed the shell, (or maybe not!) and put the cardboard top on it. Probably the biggest challenge was making sure the batteries would last the duration of the test. That one was what, 40-some minutes, that's a long time for a pair of C batteries.

    I suppose they could have extended battery life by simply removing the receiver altogether since it was unnecessary.

    I bet they would have gotten even better results by adding a push sensor bumper on the front, that when it hit something it would make a little pathetic squeak or something. That would add a whole new angle to the analysis and anthropomorphize it one step more by appealing more to the public's sense of pity. (or annoyance I suppose) Might do the same with a tilt sensor so it would also sound pathetic if it tipped over.

  • Re:steal it? (Score:2, Interesting)

    by kkrajewski ( 1459331 ) on Saturday April 11, 2009 @07:00PM (#27545155) Journal

    My first reaction was actually that it was so adorable that I'd run it all the way to its destination.

  • Re:Cute robot (Score:5, Interesting)

    by orangepeel ( 114557 ) on Saturday April 11, 2009 @07:10PM (#27545205)
    Your post reminds me a little of the "Postal Experiments" [] that I remember reading about amongst some comments here on Slashdot nearly 10 years ago:

    We sent a variety of unpackaged items to U.S. destinations, appropriately stamped for weight and size, as well as a few items packaged as noted. We sent items that loosely fit into the following general categories: valuable, sentimental, unwieldy, pointless, potentially suspicious, and disgusting.

    It's tough to say what my personal favorite was, but I think the helium-filled balloon at least deserves special mention. :-)
  • by LordKaT ( 619540 ) on Saturday April 11, 2009 @07:12PM (#27545215) Homepage Journal

    As someone born and raised in NYC (I didn't spend most of my days on the playground, though), I can say I'm not surprised in the least.

    This city is as "business minded" and conservative as it is "artsy" and liberal. Quite frankly, there's so much shit going on in this city on any given day that things like this just don't seem like anything important.

    I can't begin to tell you how many times I've managed to walk through the middle of a TV show or movie taping simply because I was walking to the subway, or how many unique pieces of art I've actually stepped on (because they were built into the sidewalk) - all of which were genius in their own right, and would be praised as such in any smaller city, but because of the overwhelming amount of stuff here, its artistic importance is significantly diminished.

  • Re:Cute robot (Score:5, Interesting)

    by harry666t ( 1062422 ) <harry666t@[ ] ['gma' in gap]> on Saturday April 11, 2009 @07:19PM (#27545261)
    I was on a walk today. I bought a notebook and a pen, and I spent time writing anonymous, open letters or drawing things whenever I had to wait for the traffic lights to change. When I was heading back home, I began giving some of those letters and drawings to random people on the street. Some people were surprised, some didn't want to take the piece of paper (maybe thought it was just a flyer). I think I'm going to do that again.
  • by moosesocks ( 264553 ) on Saturday April 11, 2009 @07:33PM (#27545339) Homepage

    Both Parisians and New Yorkers get a bad rap. In my experience, as long as you accept a few cultural norms, the residents of both cities tend to be gracious and helpful.

    Firstly, you've got to understand that people in a city as large and dense as New York are going to appear somewhat impersonal at times...otherwise you'd collapse from sensory overload. However, beneath this facade, Similarly, for whatever reason, time on the subway is considered "private time," and it's generally frowned upon to talk loudly or make eye contact with strangers, etc. Perhaps an anthropologist or sociologist could chime in and suggest why this might be?

    New Yorkers, in my opinion, tend to be some of the most gracious and sympathetic city-dwellers I know of. Of course, traditions and dispositions tend to vary tremendously from borough to borough. I've been living in the south for the past few years, and have found "Southern Hospitality" to be largely a myth, apart from the initial friendly facade that people tend to put on -- at the very least, the northeast doesn't deserve the rap it gets from the rest of the country.

    Paris is somewhat similar. Parisians have a reputation for being rude and unfriendly to outsiders. I've visited the city three times, and have never observed this to be the case. I only speak a tiny bit of French, though this seems to be greatly appreciated. I could imagine being treated rudely if I didn't know any of the language (and rightfully so).

    In fact, there are very few cities I've visited that I've found to be outwardly oppressive.

  • by harry666t ( 1062422 ) <harry666t@[ ] ['gma' in gap]> on Saturday April 11, 2009 @07:51PM (#27545421)
    It must be fun to live there. In my city (Bydgoszcz, Poland), the most interesting random thing I recently saw happening on a street was a bunch of cats sitting together with pidgeons:

    However, the only thing that actually keeps making my city less and less attractive to me, is that it's getting harder and harder for me to get lost in it. I just know it too good, and I like exploring new places, getting somewhat lost, turning a short, 3h walk into a "where am I and how the fuck do I get back home from here".
  • by phantomfive ( 622387 ) on Saturday April 11, 2009 @08:04PM (#27545457) Journal
    They let this robot loose in the middle of a park, where people are leisurely enjoying themselves. Of course people are going to help it. They should have put it down in the financial district, where it would have gotten sworn at, kicked, dropped in a gutter, then run over.

    Or maybe they could have put it down in Washington and gotten it a stimulus.
  • by Briareos ( 21163 ) * on Saturday April 11, 2009 @08:12PM (#27545495)

    There's a reason that Boston isn't known for anything except baked beans and New York is a center for culture, art, music, and science.


    My home town is this year's European "Capital of Culture" (aka "Linz 09" [])...

    I still don't see how putting a ferris wheel on top of a parking garage [] is very cultural, but maybe that's just me.

    np: Herbert - Harmonise (Scale)

  • Re:unbelievable (Score:3, Interesting)

    by Quothz ( 683368 ) on Saturday April 11, 2009 @08:20PM (#27545535) Journal

    I wonder if the sidewalk it was traveling down (to the south) had a physical barrier blocking it from going further south? (toward traffic)

    From the photos and Google Maps, it looks like it's partially separated from the road by fenced trees and shrubbery, but there's wide gaps where the road is accessible. It seems the lil' fellow did nearly go on a journey of discovery into traffic at one point:

    One man turned the robot back in the direction from which it had just come, saying out loud to the Tweenbot, "You can't go that way, it's toward the road."

  • Re:unbelievable (Score:4, Interesting)

    by Quothz ( 683368 ) on Saturday April 11, 2009 @08:28PM (#27545563) Journal

    The pictures seems to be taken near NYU ( Broadway and Waverly and WSP ).

    The words seems to indicates that these was entirely done at WSP.

    Is there any evidence of the author trying tougher challenges like union square or handling traffic lights?

    My super-secret sources tell me that this was the first in a series and that you can be notified of upcoming missions (and new bot designs) by sending a note to a super-secret email address [mailto].

  • by macraig ( 621737 ) <> on Saturday April 11, 2009 @08:59PM (#27545685)

    It's quite possible that the primary reason most of those people stopped to aid it was because of their fascination and the uniqueness of it. Had it not been something that stood out dramatically from the expected, I suspect it would have received little attention and even less help.

    It likely demonstrates very little of a social nature at all.

  • by Shadow of Eternity ( 795165 ) on Saturday April 11, 2009 @11:12PM (#27546115)

    4chan loves kittens. NYC may display helpful benevolence towards these little dudes, that shouldn't be taken to mean anything other than that as a whole NYC has a soft spot for cute small robots.

  • by Anonymous Coward on Saturday April 11, 2009 @11:24PM (#27546157)

    Any location where the person cannot escape and people are crowded together so that invading each others personal space is usually considered private. The classic example of this is elevator cars, where it's been observed that two people boarding can be having a conversation outside the car, stop it while they're in the car, and resume it as soon as they get off. Often they don't even realize that they're doing it.

  • by v1 ( 525388 ) on Saturday April 11, 2009 @11:39PM (#27546201) Homepage Journal

    Tweenbot: ask nice robot lady to upgrade module so i can write capital letters

    I was just thinking how hilarious and interesting it would be to find out where they were planning to release one of these, and mug it during the test, and do a 30 second Indy pitstop to upgrade it with say, voice or something else before they could react, and scatter, and see what the coordinators thought of that...

    A little turmabout, let THEM become the social experiment... :)

  • by story645 ( 1278106 ) <> on Sunday April 12, 2009 @12:23AM (#27546333) Journal

    Similarly, for whatever reason, time on the subway is considered "private time," and it's generally frowned upon to talk loudly or make eye contact with strangers, etc.

    Dunno, maybe 'cause I just want to get to where ever I'm going and therefore don't feel like dealing with anyone? (Most people I know sleep/study/read/pray on the train-it's often the only time they actually get to themselves) Or 'cause the last guy who talked to me on the subway tried to scam me out of 300 dollars?

  • Re:Cute robot (Score:5, Interesting)

    by u38cg ( 607297 ) <> on Sunday April 12, 2009 @06:08AM (#27547357) Homepage
    P.G. Wodehouse (author of the Jeeves novels, amongst other things) used to write his letters, stamp and address them, and then throw them out the window on the pavement. His theory was that anyone finding such a letter would simply pop it in the nearest post-box; which apparently, they did. He claimed never to have lost a letter this way.
  • by Wodin ( 33658 ) on Sunday April 12, 2009 @07:47AM (#27547685)

    We Dutch are the rudest people in the world, so you can still learn a lot from us I think. In Amsterdam these little robots would be flattended or thrown in a canal in no time.

    Interesting, given that New York City was at one time called New Amsterdam [] :)

  • by SupremoMan ( 912191 ) on Sunday April 12, 2009 @08:55AM (#27547969)

    I would love to see what would happen if he didn't draw a smiley face. If he drew a grumpy or mean face on the robot, would people direct it into traffic?

If all else fails, immortality can always be assured by spectacular error. -- John Kenneth Galbraith