Autism Projects Social robots

Kaspar social stories (2018)

Kaspar is a humanoid social robot, designed by researchers at the University of Hertfordshire to support autistic children with social communication and interactions. Led by Dr David Silvera-Tawil (CSIRO and UNSW), the Creative Robotics Lab (CRL) have a Kaspar robot on hand to conduct research examining the usefulness of a humanoid robot as a tool for enacting Social Stories.

Social Stories are a tool that Dr David Silvera-Tawil and Dr Scott Brown are using to help autistic children scaffold their social interactions in a controlled space, before applying these skills with other children. In collaboration with each child’s parents or carers, an individual plan is made for the child to ‘practice’ interactions or other social skills that the child may be having difficulty with. By enacting these with or alongside Kaspar, the child can experience and learn these skills through an interaction that is repeatable and manages expectations.

A boy and male researcher stand beside the Kaspar robot. The boy's face is pixelated for privacy reasons.
Image credit: ABC News

Kaspar has been designed to limit ambiguity in facial expressions and behaviour. Unlike humans whom often behave in unexpected or unclear ways, a programmable robot is thought to be a useful ‘stepping stone’ to more complex and demanding social interactions.

Silvera-Tawil and Brown have found that Kaspar can be most helpful as a supporting or mediating tool in clinical settings. As a presence for a clinician to refer to, or use to prime a child for other tasks, Kaspar shows promise. The researchers are currently looking to build on this exploratory study and welcome enquiries for collaboration and further development.

Kaspar in the news



Dorkbot (2014-16)

Dorkbot is a worldwide memetic event, loosely based around hackers, artists, musicians, engineers, or anyone else that has a passing interest in circuit bending, 3D printers, physical computing and generally breaking electronics. The catch cry of Dorkbot events is: ‘people doing strange things with electricity’.

The wonderful Pia van Gelder was heroic in maintaining the Dorkbot presence in Sydney for many years at the now defunct Serial Space. In 2014, Pia invited me to join her as co-overlord of the Dorkbot Sydney chapter and bring the events to the UNSW Art & Design campus.

We held 10 Dorkbot events at UNSW Art & Design from 2014-16 (when the campus was still known as COFA) on topics ranging from biohacking to electromechanical percussion. You can find flyers from the events here.

Dorkbot flyer, March 2015.
Dorkbot flyer, May 2015.
Autism Events

Autism MeetUp (2016)

On 2nd April 2016, I led a collaborative community event between UNSW Art & Design and the Autism CRC group based at UNSW Medicine, titled Autism MeetUp. We wanted to showcase all the different research projects across these two faculties at UNSW, as well as giving the autism community a chance to come and meet us in person. The event was very successful with over 70 autistic children and adults, family members, carers/support people and health professionals in attendance. See some pictures below from the event.

Dawn-Joy Leong’s installation. Image credit: Maya Ling.
Scott Brown’s sensory tent. Image credit: Reuven Matalon.
The Interactivity section at Autism MeetUp. Image credit: Reuven Matalon.
Scott Brown’s speculative design object study. Image credit: Reuven Matalon.

We promoted the event to coincide with World Autism Awareness Day and be held on a quiet day on the UNSW Paddington campus. The concept behind the event was to allow visitors to:

  • Wander around and have a look at a number of different stands, which contain information about different research projects;
  • Talk to the researchers in a relaxed, informal and friendly environment;
  • Share ideas and feedback about the different projects;
  • Sign up for a research project which may be of interest; and
  • Share ideas about what the group should be researching.

We asked visitors to provide us with feedback on the event. Happily, 94% of people who gave feedback were ‘satisfied’ or ‘very satisfied’ with the event and said they were ‘likely’ or ‘somewhat likely’ to attend the event if it was run again.

Here were some of the comments left by attendees at Autism MeetUp:

“(I liked the) casual and approachable atmosphere. Engaging researchers who are clearly committed to furthering our knowledge base.”

“(I liked) being able to move freely amongst various tables, meeting and chatting… As an advocate, parents benefit from open opportunities like this to get the sense of support, and information exchange between parents, looking forward to future events.”

“It was good to meet some of the younger researchers and discuss their projects… It was refreshing to be exposed to newer ideas, some brought about of course by increasing medical technology”

All the photos from the day can be found here.

Autism Experience design Projects Social interaction

Responsive Dome Environment (2015)

The Responsive Dome Environment (RDE) is the central design artefact that has been produced as a result of Scott Brown’s PhD research. This space was developed over several iterations, based on the situated feedback of autistic and neurotypical children and their parents.

As the site for non-directed and playful interactions, the RDE allowed children to develop an understanding of their agency through explicitly mapped feedback of the lighting and sound system around the dome-like structure.

Colleagues testing iteration #1 of the Responsive Dome Environment.

The structure and aesthetic considerations of the audio visual system around the RDE both contained the interaction space and created an environment that was welcoming and controlled. This assisted with growing the relationship between the participants and researcher, with children and their parents returning for three stages of the RDE study over 12 months.

In the final iteration of the RDE, the mapping of feedback between the interface and system output was disrupted over time. This led to observable and repeatable triggers toward social interaction between child and parent, for example, the child asking their parent for assistance or clarification on why the system no longer responded as they would expect.

Iteration #3 of the Responsive Dome Environment, during exhibition.

These behaviours have led to the primary outcome of Scott Brown’s PhD thesis, as an interaction design research approach to eliciting feedback from neurodiverse groups. Brown plans on expanding upon this research, both through further studies using this research method and continued development of the RDE as an experiential environment for neurodivergent children.

Conferences News

SIGGRAPH Asia 2014

Having just returned from participating in my first international conference yesterday, I thought I would post a few thoughts on SIGGRAPH Asia 2014 and my short trip to Shenzhen, China

My paper was accepted as part of the workshop titled, Designing Tools For Crafting Interactive Artifacts, and headed by Kening Zhu from the City University of Hong Kong. In my paper, I speak about the research I am doing and how Design can be used to structure an observational study, looking at issues of communication and agency in children with autism.

Such is the long lead-in time of conference submissions, by the time I presented my work at SIGGRAPH Asia, I was a lot further along in my research than my paper would indicate. I discussed the implications of my design decisions on the results of the first human study (more on this shortly) and how the experience of the first study might inform the next iteration.

Delivering my presentation at the SIGGRAPH Asia 2014 workshop.

I had some great feedback on both my paper and presentation, and the experience of participating in such a prestigious conference was hugely motivating. To have genuine interest from respected career academics and be able to engage with them in an open and even platform gave me confidence that I’m heading in the right direction with my research. It’s something that most research candidates struggle with on occasion and an experience I wish I’d had earlier in my candidature.

All presentations as part of the workshop sparked interesting discussion. Personally, I found the keynote of Thecla Schiphorst (Simon Fraser University) inspiring; her amazing body of work and sensitivity to aesthetics in HCI was incredible. Also, the work of Justyna Ausareny was fantastic; her Dorkbot-style approach and enthusiasm for electronics and sharing was infectious. Despite the long history of computer science being dominated by men, many women were here kicking goals in the space where HCI and Art/Design collide.

Also inspiring was the Emerging Technologies (ET) area as part of the main SIGGRAPH Asia exhibition. My expectation of ET was that there would technologies ready for market and presented by large corporations (as is the case with most of the exhibition, where you can see plenty of 3D software packages on show). Instead, most of the work was speculative or at a prototype stage and being shown by researchers from international Universities. After seeing some of the work there, I would feel comfortable in also presenting my own prototypes in this space.

There were a couple of standout ideas for me in ET. The first was a haptic feedback device for the sight impaired, by researchers from several Japanese institutes. Using an off-the-shelf DIY approach, the technology itself was very simple, but the feedback experience was mapped incredibly well; using a proximity sensor, a motorised arm would push against the users finger when within a certain range of an object.

Haptic feedback for the sight impaired; stepper motor arm ‘pushes back’ against finger, based on proximity sensor data.

Also interesting for its relevance to my own work was the A-Blocks exhibit. Embedded with wireless sensors, these toy blocks for children were designed to measure the quality of play. Most compelling was their attempt to track the blocks’ relationship to one another (stacking, etc), which is something that is quite difficult without the use of camera tracking or similar, and the reason that I steered away from internal sensors in my own work.

Overall, the scale of SIGGRAPH Asia was much smaller than I expected. This is the younger, smaller cousin of SIGGRAPH in the United States (generally attended by 3D behemoths, like Pixar and other animated movie companies), but despite this knowledge, I found the size and content of the general exhibition underwhelming. The lineage of SIGGRAPH is computer graphics (particularly 3D), with Interactivity and other HCI work being a more recent addition, but the exhibition was focused almost entirely on 3D software, with little to keep me there beyond an hour or so.

A view of housing in Shenzhen from my hotel room.
Looking toward the Civic Centre, pre-notherly breeze.
Looking toward the Civic Centre, post-notherly breeze.

SIGGRAPH Asia was certainly worth the long flight, if only to reaffirm my focus in my own research. I’ve got the bug now, and will be looking to get to at least one more international conference before my studies finish in just over 12 months – it’s something that I would recommend any new researcher to experience as soon as possible.

Artworks Projects

Experiencing Environments (2014)

Experiencing Environments was shown as part of the Mighty Healthy exhibition at UNSW Galleries. The group show explored Design work that addresses health and therapeutic issues, and takes in a wide range of mediums.

Lighting test during build.

This work was developed as a ‘technology probe’ for Scott Brown’s PhD research, to explore the technology that would ultimately be used in the Responsive Dome Environment (RDE). Technology probes are used in the early stages of a design process to uncover information or data about usage of a particular technology. Experiencing Environments was created to encourage neurotypical audiences to discuss issues of sensory hyper and hypo-sensitivity while interacting with the artefact.

The lighting system for this version is inverted (inside instead of outside) when compared to the RDE, and a set of headphones with binaural microphones are attached to the front of the installation. By putting these headphones, the viewer can experience a change in their auditory sense, and some awareness of what it might be like to have auditory hyper-sensitivity. The binaural microphones amplify the sound throughout the space, leading to a variety of responses: overwhelmed; confused; excited; distracted – all behaviours commonly found in autistic children.

Internal lighting system.

The work is not aiming to articulate or presume what it might be like to be autistic. Rather, the system is designed as a catalyst for debate and awareness by people that would not normally consider what a sensory hyper-sensitivity may entail. These conversations with visitors to the exhibition were drawn upon to inform the design approach to the RDE.