Vyo Is a Fascinating and Unique Take on Social Domestic Robots

Vyo social robot for controlling smart home devices.
Image: Vyo

The way to make a social home robot seems to be pretty standardized: basically, you cram a tablet computer into a cute robot body with some degrees of freedom and do your best to make sure that your voice recognition and conversation algorithms are as good of an experience as you possibly can, using a screen to help you out when necessary. This is fine, if you can get it to work well, but there’s a concern that it’s just going to turn into an experience that’s essentially talking to a gussied-up version of your phone.

A group of researchers including Michal Luria, Guy Hoffman, Benny Megidish, Oren Zuckerman, Roberto Aimi, and Sung Park from IDC Herzliya, Cornell, and SK Telecom have developed a prototype social robot called Vyo. Vyo is “a personal assistant serving as a centralized interface for smart home devices.” Nothing new there, but what sets Vyo apart is how you interact with it: it combines non-anthropomorphic design with anthropomorphic expressiveness and a tactile object-based control system into a social robot that’s totally, adorably different. But is it practical?

We spoke with Professor Guy Hoffman from Cornell University and IDC Herzliya in Israel (you probably recognize his name from the work he did at the MIT Media Lab on the AUR robotic desk lamp and, more recently, on the Shimi musical robot) about where the idea for Vyo came from, and what’s behind the unique design:

The idea for Vyo stemmed from a number of roots. First, both social robotics and smart homes are technologies which seem on the brink of market feasibility. The original vision for the future of domestic technology was for it to be calm, ubiquitous, autonomous, and transparent, and most importantly unified. In reality we find a bunch of unrelated, separately controlled devices.

Many of the suggested interface solutions for smart homes are split between voice control and touch screens. In my mind this betrays the “domestic” aspect of home technology. I found it eerie to have to speak to your walls or into space, and didn't want to add another bright glass square for you to touch at home. A social robot offers a very different kind of relationship with your home and domestic technology.

That’s when the idea came up to make Vyo ride the brink between an “investigative tool,” like a “microscope into your home” and a social presence. The social presence should be quiet, peripheral, and respectful (like a butler) and not quirky and playful, since - after all - it is representing the wellbeing of your home. 

Most importantly, though, I wanted the user to be in control and the robot to recede into being a “lens” for the user to operate on, that's why we took the "microscope" route, where you place objects of interest under the lens to get more information. As a result, the screen is not the main interface component, but is just revealed when the robot bows down and offers it to you. An additional “physical pun” was that you could look into the robot’s thought process when you do this. 

With those general design considerations in mind, the researchers also identified a series of five design goals for Vyo based on prior research, experience, and user studies:

  1. Engaging – A smart home interface should promote the user’s sense of connection with their domestic environment. This sense can be evoked by engaging the user and bringing back “excitement of interaction.”

  2. Unobtrusive – Domestic technology should be at least semi-automated, aspiring to as few disruptions as possible. Thus, our second design goal is to design a robot that will draw attention only when it is essential.

  3. Device-like – Most domestic robot designs see the robot primarily as a social agent, often with humanoid or anthropomorphic form. We aim for a more device-like domestic robot design, striking a fine balance between device and social agent. This point is also supported by [a study], where participants preferred a home robot characterized as a “butler-like” assistant (79 percent) or as an appliance (71 percent). Only few wanted a home robot to be their friend or mate.

  4. Respectful – People expect the robot to have “etiquette”, “politeness”, and “sensitivity to social situations”. We therefore suggest robotic assistants should evoke a sense of respect towards their “employer.”

  5. Reassuring – Finally, our interviews strongly suggested people need the domestic robot to be reliable, reassuring, and trustworthy. This cannot rely solely on fault-tolerance, but should also be embodied in the design of the robot’s morphology, [nonverbal behaviors], and interaction schemas.

Putting all of that stuff together into a physical robot isn’t easy, and the design process was a complex one, with the researchers exploring two different form factors: one of the microscope-like social robot (which ended up close to the final design for Vyo), and another that was more heavily influenced by consumer electronics:

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As with any social robot, the way it looks is only a part of the experience. What will really capture your attention and emotion is how the robot behaves, or more fundamentally, how it moves to express itself. “Vyo was designed using a multi-disciplinary movement-centric design approach,” Hoffman told us. “With the help of Michal Luria, we used actors, puppeteers, and animators to simultaneously design the appearance and the expressive movements of the robot. Just as an example, we went through many versions of the neck angle in animation trying to show a respectful attentiveness in animation, before actually building the mechanical joints for the robot.”

The final piece here is the way in which users can interact with Vyo: by placing little objects that represent connected home systems directly on the robot, and then manipulating them to control those systems. This is certainly a unique approach, but it seems like it would be less efficient than voice commands or using a touchscreen, so we asked Hoffman about it:

The connection between social robotics and tangible user interfaces (like the physical icons) has never been suggested, and my collaborator Oren Zuckerman (an expert in [tactile user interfaces]) and I wanted to offer that relationship as a new HCI approach. Tangible icons representing information offer several interaction benefits such as quick overview of the status with a short glance, bimanual/simultaneous operation (you could swipe off all the icons in a hurry, to turn all the devices off), and fine motor control. 

We were also inspired by domestic rituals, like placing your keys on a bowl by the entrance. Furthermore, the “giving” of objects traditionally is associated with “passing responsibility.” This was another novel interaction paradigm between humans and robots. You literally “give” the robot the task. Finally, placing things is a very democratic interface, for example for populations who would have a harder time navigating a complex on-screen menu or a voice interface.

Hearing about this process is absolutely fascinating to me, because it gives such insight into all of the careful thought and design decisions that go into creating a social robot, and how those decisions can result in something completely different from what we’ve seen so far in the context of connected home devices.

For a much more detailed look at what it’s like to interact with Vyo, here’s Guy Hoffman himself giving a 7-minute demo with the Vyo prototype:

Right now, the researchers are experimentally comparing Vyo’s interaction technique with more traditional ones (screen-based and voice-based interfaces) to see which ones come closer to meeting the design goals of the robot. South Korean mobile operator SK Telecom has already taken some of the lessons that were learned during Vyo’s design process and is applying them to its smart home business strategy. Hoffman also told us that they’re “working on designing a more furniture-like version of the robot.” I have no idea what that’s going to be like, but sign me up anyway. 

“Designing Vyo, a Robotic Smart Home Assistant: Bridging the Gap Between Device and Social Agent,” by Michal Luria, Guy Hoffman, Benny Megidish, Oren Zuckerman, and Sung Park from IDC Herzliya, Cornell, and SK Telecom, will be presented at IEEE/RAS RO-MAN 2016 in August.

[ Vyo ]

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