HCI Lab invites public to Robotics Open House

Kids posing with robot at UW-Madison

For many people, the word “robot” calls to mind images from science fiction or fantasy.  But for members of the Department of Computer Sciences’ Human-Computer Interaction (HCI) Laboratory, robots aren’t exotic or futuristic; they’re an increasingly important part of computing—and society at large.

To connect the public with the possibilities and fascinating science behind robots (and how we, as humans, engage with them), the HCI Lab is hosting a Robotics Open House on Friday, April 11, 2014, from 1 to 4 p.m. (room 3351, Computer Sciences Building).  The event is free and open to all.  It is structured as a drop-in event with various interactive demonstrations.  Kids, parents and K-12 educators are especially welcome, as the open house will be geared to kids and adults alike.

The Robotics Open House is part of the broader National Robotics Week, an initiative that recognizes robotics technology as a pillar of 21st century innovation and showcases its growing importance through a wide variety of uses.

The HCI Lab is directed by assistant professor Bilge Mutlu and includes a number of undergraduate and graduate researchers.  Allison Sauppé, one of Mutlu’s graduate students, says the open house is a terrific opportunity to inform the public about robots and their applications.  It also gets people of all ages excited about technology and, more specifically, computer science.  “Robots are really tangible for kids.  It’s a good chance to engage with them and teach them how awesome this field is,” she says.

Activity stations at the open house will include one on telepresence robots (sometimes nicknamed “Skype on a stick”).  As Sauppé explains, one problem with using Skype is that users don’t have control within their virtual environment.  Telepresence robots allow one to have mobility by driving the screen around.  “We’ll set up mazes so people can drive the robots and interact with other people,” she says.

The field of human-computer interaction weaves together insights from many disciplines.  “Human-computer interaction and robotics are interdisciplinary areas that bridge computer science with engineering, the behavioral sciences and design.  It’s about building novel technologies that are easy to use, intuitive and beneficial for people,” says Professor Mutlu.

That interdisciplinary nature drew Sauppé, who earned her master’s at UW-Madison in 2011 and is now working on her doctorate, to HCI. “I’ve had the opportunity to study linguistics, data visualization, psychology—a whole host of areas you wouldn’t usually have the opportunity to look at as a computer scientist.”  Currently, Sauppé is researching which behaviors robots can use to work most effectively with human partners.  For example, if you are building furniture with a robot, how can it best help you?

Professor Mutlu and other members of the HCI Lab look forward to greeting the public April 11.  Questions about the event can be directed to the main Computer Sciences number, (608) 262-1204.

[Pictured above: young participants in UW-Madison's Grandparents University pose with a robot friend from the HCI Lab in 2010.]