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Georgia Institute of Technology

Quality Insider

Turning Tools Into Co-Workers

Engineering and dance theory combine to create realistic movement in robots

Published: Tuesday, April 2, 2013 - 10:40

A dancing robot is nothing new. A quick search on YouTube will yield videos of robots dancing to Michael Jackson’s “Thriller,” “Gangnam Style,” the “Macarena,” and more. But instead of programming a robot to copy an existing dance, Amy LaViers, a Ph.D. candidate in electrical and computer engineering at the Georgia Institute of Technology, is defining the various styles of human movement and creating algorithms to reproduce them on a humanoid robot.

What’s more, LaViers has produced a robotic dance performance based on her research, called “Automaton,” in which a Nao robot and professional dancers explore the notion of “automatic style.”

“We are working with such a highly articulated robot that can do so many cool things, yet there are many ways he is limited, too,” says LaViers. “I do play with that idea of: What can the robot do, and what can the people do? Where are the differences, and where are the similarities?”

LaViers’ work examines the intersection of engineering and dance movement, and could be applied to make robots more useful in everyday life, says Magnus Egerstedt, professor of electrical and computer engineering and LaViers’ faculty advisor.

“When robots are transitioning out of the manufacturing floor and into homes, becoming co-workers instead of tools, they need to understand to a certain degree what it means to be human,” says Egerstedt. “They need to move in a style that makes sense to people, so that’s why we started thinking about how you quantify style.”

A dancer for most of her life, LaViers thought to combine dance with engineering during her undergraduate senior project at Princeton University. She saw a natural overlap between choreography, which is an arrangement of steps, and robotic algorithms, an engineering tool that plans robotic movement.

Robotic movements tend to be stiff and unnatural, but LaViers believes robots should have a range of quality of movement. To achieve this, she is developing quantitative tools that explain what differentiates movements and using dance theorist Rudolf Laban’s notion of quality.

LaViers also examines the basic poses and movements that define a style to quantify differences between genres of movement. What is the difference, for instance, between doing a disco dance and performing ballet? Using a computer program she developed for her thesis, she encodes that information so it can be reproduced on robots.

“Understanding how humans move is key to developing better techniques and applications to make robots move in a way that humans can relate to,” says LaViers. “Style is part of this—particularly in the arts.”

LaViers’ research fits into the overall objective of the Georgia Robotics and Intelligent Systems (GRITS) lab run by Egerstedt. The lab aims to produce robotic algorithms that endow robots of all kinds with desirable behavior.

Having algorithms that mimic human movement in a high-level way could advance the use of robots in real-world settings. For example, it may enable caregiving robots to have more comforting movement that is less intimidating to patients. Style-based measurements may also provide better feedback to patients recovering from physical disabilities or injuries.

In the “Automaton” piece, LaViers presents choreography generated from the framework in her thesis that is performed by human dancers and automated on the humanoid robot. After the performance, audience members will have a chance to give feedback on their impressions of the movement.

“I hope the audience thinks of movement and programmed objects a little bit differently after seeing the show,” says LaViers. “I also hope it brings up ideas of technology in our lives today and in the future, when robots may be more commonplace.”


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Georgia Institute of Technology’s picture

Georgia Institute of Technology

The Georgia Institute of Technology is one of the nation’s top research universities, distinguished by its commitment to improving the human condition through advanced science and technology. Georgia Tech’s campus occupies 400 acres in the heart of the city of Atlanta, where 20,000 undergraduate and graduate students receive a focused, technologically-based education.