Robotic theatrics pairs UTA research with Arlington seniors

Pioneering robotic research at UT Arlington is uncovering the emotions and engagement exchanged between man and machine

  • Dr. Julienne Greer, associate professor of Theatre Arts at UT Arlington, discusses the Emotional Robotics Living Lab (Photo by Zack Maxwell / Arlington Voice)
    Dr. Julienne Greer, associate professor of Theatre Arts at UT Arlington, discusses the Emotional Robotics Living Lab (Photo by Zack Maxwell / Arlington Voice)
  • NAO Robot
    NAO is one of two advanced robots used in the lab to test the emotional engagement between man and machine (Photo by Zack Maxwell / Arlington Voice)
  • Dr. Julienne Greer and Pepper the robot (Photo by Zack Maxwell / Arlington Voice)
    Dr. Julienne Greer stands with Pepper the robot (Photo by Zack Maxwell / Arlington Voice)
The Arlington V...

Its arm, no longer than that of a toddler, reaches toward the sky as it recites Shakespeare's Sonnet 18.

"Shall I compare thee to a summer's day?"

On the surface, the NAO (pronounced "now") robot looks like something out of a science-fiction movie or possibly Star Trek.

Some agree the "future is now." That's an accurate account of what's occurring inside the Emotional Robitics Living Lab at UT Arlington where robot technology, like NAO, is being studied for its benefits for an aging population.

NAO is joined by its more sophisticated colleague, Pepper; a chest-high, sleek-white robot with a touch screen affixed to its chest, which offers advanced user engagement.

“They are nothing at all like empty shells,” said Dr. Julienne Greer, assistant professor of Theatre Arts and director of the lab. “They come out of the box with a personality. You can ask it a lot of questions and they can answer them.”

The robots, a product of SoftBank/Aldebaran -- a merger between a Japanese company and a French company, respectively -- are capable of walking, dancing, reciting sonnets and even laying down and getting back up.

Robots are common in the manufacturing industry -- most notably in the construction of automobiles -- but they're finding work in the service industry as well. With the help of Georgia Tech, UTA is studying how the technology can apply in the caretaker industry.

“The caretaker’s burden is huge,” Greer said. “There is a bond that develops when you bring these robots into a room. By building on that bond and capability, it's possible they could lessen that burden.”

NAO, for example, has been pre-programmed to recite and act out several of Shakespeare' s sonnets. Each move is carefully choreographed by Greer, whose theatre experience helps make the robot's performance relatable.

A group of participants at Brookdale Senior Living Center in Arlington recently met NAO as part of Greer's research on engagement. One participant, Carol Shunk, said she wasn't sure what to expect, but was pleasantly surprised.

“They had more personality than I thought,” Shunk said. “At first they moved around like a doll. They were nice and cute and very charming. NAO recited a speech and I was very impressed.”

Shunk, a retired schoolteacher, admitted she was surprised by the abilities of the robots, and had to ponder what the future might bring.

“I honestly think we will see more of this in every aspect of the future,” she said. “I was not surprised by their ability to communicate. I know they use robots to assist in surgeries.”

More advanced robots, like Pepper, are already used as personal attendants in banks. But its technology could one day offer companionship and assistance to elderly or disabled persons.

By the end of her study, Greer said all the particpants were comfortable and fascinated with the robots. While the initial group of seniors were all healthy and of sound cognition, Greer plans to soon try the study with a group of participants who suffer from cognitive detiororation.

The future for robots like NAO and Pepper is bright. Their participation in other industries is expected to grow. And if the impression they left on Shunk is an indication, then they'll likely cotitnue to charm everyone they meet.

This story is part of the Arlington Voice's 25 Days of Good News series