Robot Road Run: how LIREC inspired a game
Robot Road Run is a fun, free to download iPhone game app, in which you control a robot called FLASH as he rushes along the road collecting bolts and batteries, avoiding pesky pets and meeting and greeting folk on the way. The game contains lots of ideas that have been developed and explored in the LIREC European research project, you can just enjoy the game but if you’re interested in knowing more, here is the science and engineering .
The robot in the game is based on a real robot we built for the project. Called FLASH, it was built in Poland and runs around balancing on two wheels giving it plenty of agility and a range of speeds. Like most robots today FLASH is built with bolts and powered by batteries (robot motors drain batteries very quickly these days), which is why the robot wants to collect these in the game.
THE ROBOT HEAD
The robot’s head in the game is based on the EMYS head built for LIREC. Based on a cartoon turtle the head consists of three discs that can move to allow the face to produce a whole range of expressions, we even looked at the science behind cartoon animation where animators want to have characters expressing strong emotions, so when FLASH is surprised his eyes stick out on stalks, just like they do in the cartoons.
In the game the robot needs to avoid hitting the various objects in his path, the robots in LIREC do too; they have anti-collision software that allows then to detect objects in their way as they move around and to avoid these. In LIREC we also examined something called proxemics, this studies how close robots can approach to a person without that person feeling uncomfortable.
Like the robot in the game FLASH can find and follow faces in the environment and recognise the expression on the faces of the people he encounters and so can our robots. Using computer vision algorithms the LIREC software finds features on a person’s face like eyes the edge of the mouth and so on and has been trained to associate certain configurations of these features with particular facial expressions, for example smiles or frowns.
In the game you score points by making the robots smile if the person is smiling and frown if the person is looking sad. This is called an empathetic response, the robot face reflecting the expression of the person. In LIREC our chess playing Icat robot does this, and it helps to build a bond with the player.
STUDIES OF DOG BEHAVIOR
In the game you need to avoid cats that seem jealous of the robot, spitting hairballs and fish, and dogs run around playfully. Our Hungarian partners studied dog behaviour in LIREC to try and understand the sorts of ways that our robots should interact with people, dogs are social animals and are companions to many, so for example LIREC robots attract attention by acting in the same ways dogs do and can fetch and carry too. We didn’t study cats’ behaviours in LIREC, it’s not that we don’t like cats, we do, we have a cat robot that plays chess, but dogs are normally far more predictable and sociable. Using the ideas from the natural world to help us build better technologies is an increasingly popular area of research; another example is that our LIREC robots have memories that are based on ideas from the human brain.
MATHS AND COMPUTER SCIENCE
Creating a game app is all about computer programming and the maths behind the screen, creating the ways object interact, the graphics the scoring system and so on. Similarly robotics research contains an amazing amount of computer programming and maths. In LIREC we have produced what is called a three layer cognitive architecture, this is a suite of software programmes that power our robots and avatars, which allows then to learn, interact with the world and migrate between different bodies. We hope future researches will make use of this to build their own companions, and push our research into exciting new directions.
We hope you enjoy playing the game, but also learning about the science behind it.