Wednesday, March 29, 2017

Zooids: who are these cute robots?

This article gives a less technical description of the Zooids described in a previous post ( It also offers insight into the motives of the scientists and explains the psychological responses of viewers to the robots.
Zooids: who are these cute robots?
( Published 28 November 2016 by Elsa Ferreira

Worthy of a video of cats! Mathieu Le Goc’s mini-robots, a new form of manipulable interface, charmed the Web. The French researcher who created this prototype in open source to replace the interaction with the computer explains himself.

London, from our correspondent:

11 million views. The army of robots developed by Mathieu le Goc, PhD student at the French National Institute for computer science and applied mathematics (Inria), in collaboration with researchers from the Shape laboratory in Stanford, won the Web over. One has to say they are cute, those small electronic soldiers that follow each other to form lines, looking a bit gauche. “Dress them up as Minions, it will be a hit for Christmas,” suggests an Internet user. So true.

Zooids: Building Blocks for Swarm User Interfaces

Le Goc’s mini robots are not Minions but Zooids, an “elementary animal that is part of a colonial animal either connected by tissue e.g. Ectoprocta or sharing a common exoskeleton e.g. Bryozoa,” according to the definition in Wikipedia.

Micro-errors and empathy

Zooids were not designed to be sweet but as a manipulable interface. “The emotional attachments humans can have with machines is linked to movement. It’s something we hadn’t foreseen, admits Mathieu Le Goc. We have no empathy for machines with mechanical movements, identical from one iteration to another.” Yet, Zooids, because of micro calculation errors and divergences in their motors, and thus their reaction time, are unpredictable. Equipped with two wheels, “they a little unstable, go too far, turn over, their movements are not precise, they look a bit like clowns,” admits Le Goc. Being unable to predict its movements, we link the Zooid much less to a machine, explains the PhD student, but more to “small animals”. Bugs, incidentally, capable of bringing us our phones.

Presentation of the Zooids, by Mathieu Le Goc:

Even though the design of the Zooid came around by accident and lack of time, admits Mathieu Le Goc, it is nevertheless interesting. “We would like to control the level of empathy,” says the researcher. Precise and predictable in the case of a serious application, such as medicine, chaotic and fun when you want to enthrall the user, in an educational application for example. So, “Model this behavior”…to control the level of cuteness.

Tangible interface

But all these are secondary issues. Above all Mathieu Le Goc wants to make a tangible and versatile interface to visualize information. It’s his specialty. At Inria, he is part of the Aviz lab and imagines how to “visually represent info and big data, physically represent data and make it interactive and dynamic.”

One of Mathieu Le Goc’s main motivations is to leave the virtual world to find an alternative to tactile technology. “This technology is based only on the fact that the user moves his finger on a flat surface. There is no texture and it neglects capacities of manipulation a lot,” he says with regret. We need to invent a new form of tangible interface.

Zooids act as pixels. The idea, in the end, is to remove the screen. “We want to take the experience far enough so that graphic content and projection disappear. We could re-think the interaction with computers from a more fluid point of view, and for example have a computer that one could manipulate from anywhere without having a localized place with a screen, keyboard and mouse.” Kind of programmable matter, Terminator style, suggests Mathieu Le Goc. “One imagines nano-robots on an atomic scale that can mix among themselves, come together and create volumes and 3D objects.” They also make you think of the Microbots of Big Hero, Disney animation film released last year.

How it works

Here is for the ideal. In practice, Zooids measure a little more than two centimeters in diameter and respond to a computer that sends them commands by structured light. “It’s a sequencing of black and white light that will create a binary code, explains Le Goc. We reproduce this horizontally and vertically so that at each point there is a signal.”

Robots do not detect themselves. In order not to collide with another one, each Zooid is equipped with two sensors that allow it to decode light signals, a tactile sensor and a radio that help it send its information: its position, its orientation and if it is interacting with a user. “From all this, we centralize the intelligence in a computer that will send orders to each robot. From this point of view, each robot is relatively stupid because it doesn’t know what’s happening around it, it has to ask the computer.”

Uses still remain to be invented. This is in fact the objective of the first version of Zooids: be able to experiment, says the PhD student, who intends to make the community of researchers and even amateurs benefit from it. By documenting “sufficiently well so that someone who doesn’t have any specific knowledge could make his Zooid in a fablab.” The researcher made his prototype himself at Fablab Digiscope, the Inria fablab open to the public. He thinks that researchers and makers have a lot to bring to each other, “specially to make work like Zooids more accessible and make as many people as possible benefit from the advances in research.”

Part of the assembly is already documented on Github. The documentation for the software part and the fabrication are still missing, Mathieu Le Goc tells us. Yet, he has already been asked where to find the small robots: students, teachers, several researchers and even companies that want to experiment the prototype in their research and development labs. “I have even been asked where they could be bought,” he says, laughing.

It’s the price of success. A price that Mathieu Le Goc is more than ready to pay. “It gives the project a broader scope,” he says with delight, imagining artists and designers seizing the project.

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