Until recently, robots were mainly found inside factories, but now they are increasingly being used to take orders in cafés, to serve food and drinks or to provide in-store customer assistance regarding the location of certain goods. These kinds of robots, which provide simple services for humans, are called service or assistance robots, and we will encounter more and more of them in pedestrian zones or at train stations in the future. For example, they might clean the floor or transport luggage. Of course, this will impact operational procedures and result in encounters with bystanders.
City of Ulm is providing test sites for the practical use of service robots
How can robots be used to lighten people's loads? What must robots look like and how must they behave to build up human trust? What extra functions could they potentially perform? Over the next three years, the partners working on the ZEN-MRI project will be investigating these and many other questions relating to human-robot interaction. The German Federal Ministry of Education and Research (BMBF) is funding the project with 3.6 million euros, which is led by the University of Ulm. Joining the Fraunhofer Institute for Industrial Engineering IAO are Stuttgart Media University, ADLATUS Robotics GmbH and the city of Ulm. The research focuses on using interactions with passers-by to optimize robot behavior, as well as the integration of robots in public spaces.
“Users have to be systematically involved in the design and interact with the robots early on in the development process. This ensures that the interaction behavior of the service robots is easy to understand and that the robots will be accepted in the long term,” explains Kathrin Pollmann, project manager at Fraunhofer IAO. With this in mind, test sites are being set up in downtown Ulm, and workshop locations are also being arranged. Some of the planned locations include areas in the pedestrian zone and in the mall at the station, where people are likely to interact in everyday life. Legal and ethical issues will therefore become just as important to the research as the design, safety requirements and questions of urban planning specifications.
Communication behavior and aesthetics are key factors for user acceptance
Kathrin Pollmann has been working on “positive service robotics” for several years now and has identified current and future areas of application, relief potentials and experience factors involved in human-robot interaction in the study “Service Robots in Customer Contact”. She has already conducted small-scale tests on the interaction between humans and robots in public spaces in a preliminary project and found that “many are still alienated by what some consider to be scary metal creatures. For robots to be accepted and used willingly in the long term, they must be designed to be pleasant and beneficial — in short, positive — for everyone involved,” explains Pollmann. Suddenly faced with a robot, the only way you'll perceive it as likable is if you quickly understand how to communicate with it and what it's going to do next.