World first: Robot to copy human movements on stage in showcase of leading UWE research

Issue date: 06 November 2015

Video of Dr Paul Bremner demonstrating the technology

A robot will replicate the movements of its human operator in a world-first presentation to be delivered by a pioneering researcher from the University of the West of England (UWE Bristol).

The Nao humanoid will appear at the TEDxBristol event at the Colston Hall, where an audience of more than 2,000 people will witness the robot mirroring head and arm motions made backstage by Dr Paul Bremner.

Spectators will hear Dr Bremner's voice during presentation on Wednesday (November 11) but only see his physical gestures via the 58cm-high robot, which will be wired up to him behind a curtain.

It will be the first time a presentation has been delivered to an audience with a robot proxy controlled remotely as a social avatar.

Wearing a headset connected to a camera on the robot, Dr Bremner will be able to view the audience during the experimental performance. Onlookers will be invited to give live feedback using social media, capturing their immediate reaction to the spectacle.

Research fellow Dr Bremner, who is developing the technology at Bristol Robotics Laboratory (BRL) at UWE's Frenchay campus, said the demonstration of the prototype system in public promised to be truly unique.

He said, “This hasn't been done before – not that I'm aware, not this type of motion-tracking avatar control. It has been used in the entertainment industry but for practical purposes it hasn't been done, especially in anything like a TED talk.

“The event is a big unknown and it is a big event which I haven't done before. But it's quite an engaging way to get across the potential uses for this sort of technology and what we are doing with it.

“We are looking at it as both a means of telecommunication and a way to study human interaction.”

The system being showcased at the event has been developed as part of a project called Being There, which will be the subject or Dr Bremner's talk.

Funded by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council, the project – which involves five UK universities - is examining interaction between humans and semi-autonomous robots in public spaces.

The BRL team is investigating whether the use of robot avatars allows people to have rewarding remote interactions which can foster rapport, trust and engagement with others. The research is leading the thinking on how to evaluate and develop autonomous social robots of the future.

Dr Bremner said the technology had an array of possible industry applications, including remote healthcare and teaching, and could offer advantages over video calling apps such as Skype.

He said, “The research is looking at how engaging we are to other people and how much people take notice of gestures and what we are saying. It's about the benefits of that physical presence.

“Skype loses something from a physical conversation – how we are engaged with another person in terms of passing tones, gestures and cues.

“Because having a physical presence gives you a benefit due to the social presence and rapport, the technology has applications in remote care for the elderly. With the movement, you can be engaging and persuasive. You might want to talk to something rather than a video monitor.”

TEDx talks are a spin-off of TED (Technology, Entertainment, Design) conferences, an annual series of global events which began as a one-off show in California in 1984. They have gone on to become the most successful mini-talks on the planet – with footage from the events shared on social media more than one billion times.

The TEDx movement was created in the spirit of TED's mission, 'Ideas worth spreading'. For the past three years, thought-provoking and charismatic speakers have appeared at TEDx events held in Bristol.

Also on the bill of 14 speakers at next week's event, which has a theme of Great Expectations, are BBC natural history presenter Patrick Aryee and Embarrassing Bodies co-presenter Dr Dawn Harper. Topics of the talks will range from same sex adoption to finding your 'inner meerkat'.

Dr Bremner, BRL's lead researcher on the Being There project, said TEDxBristol was an ideal arena to unveil the new technology because the performance would be filmed, shared on social media and seen by people outside of academia.

The researcher, who specialises in human-robot communication, particularly using hand gestures along with speech, said, “It will be interesting to see what the feedback is and to look at the audience reaction.”

TEDxBristol curator Mel Rodrigues said, “For me Bristol is the city of ideas, so we wanted to create a TEDx event that packed a punch and showcased our both our best innovations and our quiet heroes, intrepid trailblazers and unapologetic agitators. We've unearthed this region's ordinary people doing extraordinary things, to make our futures better than we dare dream, hence the theme Great Expectations.”

The event, which runs between 10am and 6pm, is sold out but can be followed via Twitter, Facebook and YouTube.

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