the UR5 model robot arm from universal robots does not look like a human at allit has no face, it doesn’t walk, talk, or jump like other robotic prototypes that have recently surfaced. yet seeing the mechanical arm hide its head behind its arm elbow joints as a stranger approaches, it’s impossible not to feel just a touch of empathy. and that’s because, courtesy of design i/o, this particular UR5 has been programmed with it’s very own personality.

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the robot forms the centerpiece of design i/o’s ‘mimic’ installation, comissioned by toronto international film festival as part of the digiPlaySpace interactive playground. the project came out of the studio’s desire to take a mechanical object and give it a personality that makes it feel like a living thing. the robot is programmed with a character crafted on a mixture of timidness, playfulness and curiosity—should you approach too rapidly, the arm will shy away. stay around for a bit longer and the UR5 will become more confident, leaning in to get a closer look. ‘you have to treat it kindly’ explains design i/o’s theo watson. ‘you could definitely bruise yourself if you’re in the wrong place.’

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the robot’s emotions are calculated by who is in front of the, exactly how long they have been ere, and what they are doing. when children spend enough time with the bot, it learns to trust them, and become more playful in the illusion of making a new friend. the installation is programmed with three kinects, that monitor the proximity to the arm from above. a V2 camera module on the arm itself works like an eye, observing individuals directly in front of the bot, analyzing the gestures, speed ad movement of each person to figure out how the arm should respond. then of course there’s the question of how to deal with crowdsshould a new person approach, the bot will likely direct its gaze to observe the newcomer.

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by interacting this way with the people around it, ‘mimic’ uses human body language to communicate feelings. its character is expressed without words or aesthetics, yet shows a human timidness though movement and physicality. design i/o have taken the question of ‘what gives something a personality’ and put kinathetics at the centre. the project marks a new direction in terms of computer-human interfaces that focus on movement rather than using a ‘voice’ or ‘appearance to portray human-like qualities. the project provides a look into a whole new future of user-interface design is not simply based on interactions with a screen, but where UI/UX designers will instead be coding physical interactions in a fourth dimension.

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