Pareidolic Robot

Royal College of ArtUK

Engaging

Concept / Student

Team

Neil Usher

Overview

Since its conception, the robot has always been considered a slave; a mechanical analogue of man designed to liberate us from labour in order to enjoy lives of leisure. Robots are everywhere, yet they fail to deliver on this promise, but what if they were used to optimise our leisure time instead?

People love to hunt, identify, collect and organise natural phenomena and such behaviours underpin many different hobbies and past times. Equipped with infinite patience and un-wavering concentration, these are tasks that machines could be very good at. Robots could provide novel entertainment services by recording patterns and spectacle in nature that would be almost impossible to witness for ourselves.

This concept formed the basis for the Pareidolic Robot; to generate entertainment services using devices that sense and objectify the data in nature that people like to enjoy finding themselves. The core intention was to create a paradoxical object that was alluring yet ultimately completely useless; an assemblage of technology that connects people with the natural world by alienating them from it, A complex machine of which the sole function is to compel contemplation about our technology and ourselves.

Audience

The work is primarily intended as an academic project aimed at engaging people through design media and gallery attendance. In this context the work must be attention grabbing, easily accessible as well as reward deeper contemplation. However, throughout the design process It was constantly necessary to consider speculative use cases and potential ‘real-world’ audiences of such an object. This was crucial in order for me to make design decisions and for suitable degree of integrity and design rigor to be evident in the final outcome.

The robot is designed to exist equally well in somebody’s garden, a public park or in a remote location and provide a personal, community or internet based service respectively. I did not make these potential use cases explicit in the final output in order for the work to be open to interpretation and contemplation.

Impact

The ‘impact’ of this project is hard to discern, it has certainly been well received by online press and it engages people’s interest in exhibition, but how is the impact of critical or speculative work be judged?

This project is speculative not because the technology is underdeveloped or the concept is culturally problematic but because there is no precedent or established audience for it. The device does not attempt to solve a problem or empower anyone, its simply an example of what a consumer robot might be. For this reason I wanted everybody to feel they could own one and therefore the ‘impact’ of the project is whether people suspend disbelief and begin to consider the broader ramifications it implies. I used some ‘real-world’ criteria to guide my decisions and ensure the project would have the desired impact :

  1. Capture high quality and compelling images
  2. Extremely efficient at finding faces
  3. Trainable for specific faces
  4. Weatherproof
  5. Aesthetic must help convey function
  6. Plausible in a variety of different use cases and contexts.
  7. Must be engaging and beautiful to watch
  8. Behaviour should encourage attribution of a ‘psychology’

Craft

This project required me to design software, electronics, mechanisms, behaviour, interactions and aesthetics. It was important to me that the object was as functional as possible so it to be as compelling as possible.

After the conceptual phase of the project, I began iterating with a proof of principal prototype – a fixed webcam running face detection algorithms which I attached to the roof of my house. The images it returned were interesting although limited in both quality and quantity.

The second prototype used a higher quality camera, and stepper motors to allow it to track clouds. At this point I also produced ‘calibration cards’ which allowed me to tune and test the prototypes effectiveness.

For the third and final iteration I developed a novel linkage to provide two cameras with movement whilst keeping the electronics and motors in a central weatherproof housing (which would also provide a heat-sink).

Aside from function, the aesthetics needed to combine, form, movement and behaviour so the final object would be semantically readable, theatrical in a gallery setting as well completely functional in speculative real world contexts. The final design was a combination of chameleons, TV aerials, Armillary spheres and Johnny 5.

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