Haodan Tan, who is pursuing a Ph.D. in Informatics with a focus on Human-Robot Interaction, four students pursuing a Master’s in Human-Computer Interaction/design—Fuchang Yang, Nava Teja Tummalapalli, Chetan Bhatia, and Kaustubh Barde—and SoIC undergraduate assistants Kayoung Cho and Adam Wolf developed Raven, a robot designed to address the needs of the homeless. The Student Design Competition, the first held at the HRI Conference since 2008, called on competitors to present interactive robotic objects that could enhance any level of a “smart city” environment. Specifically, teams were asked to focus on a particular interaction context, develop robotic objects, and create scenarios that illustrated how robots could fit within the lives of the humans involved.
Raven creates an interaction between homeless people and citizens through the use of a robotic mailbox. Homeless can register their information, such as their usual location, and requests for items they need at local shelters. The shelter can then transmit that information to Raven, which, in theory, would be stationed on a local street corner.
“This melding of technology with a need in the community is the perfect example of informatics’ ability to make an impact,” said Erik Stolterman, the chair of Informatics at SoIC. “The potential of this project is exciting, and we’re proud this group of students had an opportunity to showcase their work at an international conference.”
Raven aims to grab the attention of passers-by by engaging with them through movement. The robotic mailbox is placed in unexpected areas, and Arduino-based sensors allow Raven to provide human-like movement. If people interact with Raven, they are given a printed request from one of the registered homeless. The request includes the registrant’s name, a short biography, the reason behind his or her struggles, the request, and his or her location. The person can then choose to respond to the request in various ways, from searching out the homeless person to making a donation.
Requests can include clothing, a monetary contributions, employment, or something as simple as a hug.
“We interviewed the manager at the Shalom Community Center (in Bloomington) and also conducted some fly-on-the-wall exercises to observe, understand, and interact with some of the homeless individuals in Bloomington,” the group said. “In particular, when we spoke with this couple in the downtown area, we learned that most homeless individuals are skilled, but without the basic needs of sleep, food, and shelter, they are unable to sustain their jobs for a longer duration.”
The Shalom Community Center allows homeless to request needs, but the resources at the center are limited. By making the requests available to a wider audience, the community will have more of an opportunity to help those in need.
“What if there was a way in which requests for resources made by homeless individuals could be shared with the population in the city?” the group asked. “This is where Raven steps in.”
The team began working on Raven in November 2016, and despite approaching the design challenge with a limited group knowledge of the human-robot interaction space beyond Tan, who planted the seed for the project, they quickly became enthusiastic about the idea.
After conducting research and building a prototype, the group filmed a video that was submitted to the Student Design Challenge at the HRI Conference. Since being accepted to the conference, the group has continued to refine the design and work out any issues that arise.
“We want to engage with a global audience in a conversation about homelessness,” the group said. “If this project generates more ideas for different professionals in the field, the project can create opportunities for impact in many countries. For many of us, this also will be the first time that we will be presenting at an academic conference, and this is a great example of how our education can create an impact in a broad range of fields.”