Disability News Social robots

Disability Innovation Institute news story

The new Disability Innovation Institute at UNSW (DIIU) has posted an article about my work with Kaspar and the importance of creative practice in disability research.

The DIIU is an exciting initiative by UNSW, which promises to embed consideration of disability in research across the institution. Importantly, the DIIU brings an interdisciplinary approach to research and industry partnerships. This is an exciting opportunity to bring together the work of researchers at UNSW Art & Design with the sciences and humanities.

Autism News Social robots

Kaspar project in the news

We’ve been fortunate enough to be featured in the media for our pilot study with the Kaspar social robot over the past couple of months. ABC News ran a story with us on their TV bulletin and news radio.

This project is in collaboration with Dr David Silvera from the CSIRO, where have recently finished our first exploratory study with Kaspar and 3 autistic boys under the age of 5. The first stage was led by myself at the Creative Robotics Lab and the final 2 studies were carried out between a psychologist and children in a clinical therapy space. In addition to engaging the specialist knowledge of a therapist to lead the study, this allowed us to conduct the research in an environment that was familiar to each child and therefore less overwhelming or overstimulating. In these studies, Kaspar was used as a ‘peer’ in social story activities.

Social stories were developed as a targeted approach for each child in consultation with their parents. We began the process by developing activities relevant to each child, to introduce social and communication skills in a context specific to the child. During the subsequent clinical sessions, Kaspar would be used as a tool for facilitating these stories. In therapy where a peer (such as another child) might be used to help an autistic child learn social interaction skills, we believe Kaspar could be a useful scaffolding tool to prepare some children for this kind of interaction. Where the interaction of a human can be ambiguous and complex, the responses of Kaspar are clear and repeatable.

With the positive response we received from the children and their parents, we hope to expand the research through collaboration with autism services and practitioners.

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.