CMU play pairs HERB the robot with human actor


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Robots are at home on the factory floor, but they rarely make an appearance on stage.

But the robot HERB recently co-starred with a human actor in a short play performed for members of the Carnegie Mellon University community.

It was an experiment: Actors don’t need to worry about new competition from robotic thespians when they make the audition rounds.

HERB (which stands for Home Exploring Robot Butler) is a research project at the Carnegie Mellon Robotics Institute’s Personal Robotics Lab. The lab was founded in 2006 by Robotics Institute associate professor Siddhartha Srinivasa. The research is focused on developing robots with skills that will someday enable them to work in the home, helping people with basic tasks.

HERB is a robotic platform designed to test and perform these skills. It has long, flexible arms with fingers designed for picking up objects. The lab where HERB lives has been outfitted to look like a kitchen, and it’s where the robot’s homemaking skills are developed and tested.

The robot has successfully shown the ability to perform an all-important human activity — separating an Oreo cookie from its creme filling — which was demonstrated in a YouTube video. Other basic tasks include finding coffee mugs and moving them into a dishwasher, opening microwave and refrigerator doors and taking a book from a shelf.

The theater project was a collaborative effort between the Robotics Institute, the School of Drama, the Entertainment Technology Center and the Language Technologies Institute.

The play chosen for HERB's theatrical debut was "Sure Thing," a short-one act absurdist play from the David Ives’ collection "All in the Timing.”

“It's about two strangers meeting in a coffee shop and all the different paths their conversation could take,” said Sam French, a senior directing major in the drama school, who directed the play.

Carnegie Mellon acting major Olivia Brown played opposite HERB. 

HERB played a man who approaches a young woman in a coffee shop and tries to strike up an acquaintance. When his character delivers a line and the conversation gets awkward, a bell rings and the actors go back to the beginning of the scene, starting over and coming up with new conversational openings until they get it right and can move forward in the relationship — much like the Bill Murray character in “Groundhog Day.”

"The play is about trial and error and all these side paths happening and not working, until he finally finds one that works," Mr. French said.

The script “mimics how we often program robots,” said Robotics Institute project scientist Garth Zeglin.

The goal isn’t to launch HERB’s acting career, but rather to study how a robot’s movements can be made more familiar and less intimidating to people who someday will be living with them. The aim of the theater project is to “adapt traditions of theater, storytelling and human narration” to help refine the robot’s movements, Mr. Zeglin said. Ultimately, HERB's stage movements are part of a larger exploration of developing robots that will interact seamlessly with humans.

“The robot worked well and the audience seemed to enjoy it,” Mr. Zeglin said. “We satisfied our basic goal of creating a rudimentary system to allow the robot team to work with a director and actor in rehearsal. And I think we learned a lot about what kind of gestural, conversational movements can work on our robot in different contexts.”

After the performance, the audience was treated to an open rehearsal where the play’s creators pulled back the curtain to show how the production came together and how the technical team directed the robot to express itself through movement.

HERB is not an anthropomorphic robot: Without a face to express things, the developers had to rely strictly on body language. Actors and directors make choices: in HERB’s case, those choices were still made by humans. The technical and artistic teams behind HERB described how they refined the robot’s hand and arm gestures to match the words and emotions, making movements more subtle when necessary.

People who aren't used to being around robots can be startled or even feel threatened when they start moving. Robots tend to have angular movements. “For the drama project, we concentrated on developing smooth motions, faster motions,” Mr. Zeglin said.

Synthesized speech tends to sound neutral and expressionless.

"The goal was to expand our technology to create voices that have richer expression," Mr. Zeglin said. They built a specialized voice for HERB, using a large collection of recorded phrases and manipulating the emphasis on specific words and phrases so they would sound more natural.

The artistic side of the experiment had its own unique challenges.

"The role is written for a human,” Mr. French said. “It was important for us to put HERB into a human role. At the same time, there's a certain level of absurdity to the text, which makes HERB fit into the world in a way that almost makes sense."

Working with a robot actor made for a different kind of rehearsal process, Mr. French said.

“Every day there were a thousand more components that could go wrong. It’s a very complicated rehearsal process with a robot, but wonderful.

"At the heart of what we're doing is seeing how theater and robotics can work together, what they have to learn from each other and how they influence each other."


Adrian McCoy: amccoy@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1865.

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