What a Mechanical Performance! Bravo!

July 5, 2012
The New York Times
link to original article

What a Mechanical Performance! Bravo!
By Alex Wright

In a more formal comedic vein a University of Georgia theater professor, David Saltz, is developing a robotic interpretation of commedia dell’arte. With its short scenes, broad characters and absence of scripted dialogue, these archetypal sketch pieces make nearly perfect dramatic vessels for robot actors.

“Robots have limited expressive capabilities,” Mr. Saltz said. “So instead of trying to replicate human beings, you embrace those limitations.”

His robots are especially limited in their ability to make facial expressions, so instead he leans heavily on gesture and movement to convey dramatic intent. Programming a Korean-made DARwIn-OP robot using Max/MSP (a popular visual programming language), he creates algorithms that imbue its movements with distinct personality traits. One routine might give the robot a tendency toward rounded gestures, while another might favor straighter or jerky motions.

For any given scene the robot can then assume an archetypal commedia-style persona — the comic parent, the miserly merchant, the pompous doctor — each programmed with distinct gestural characteristics. The robot can then follow a stage direction to greet another character, to hide or to flee, and to do it all in character.

The purpose of such an exercise is not to replace human actors, but rather to explore the mechanics of how movement evokes emotional responses. For human actors, projecting emotion is often a matter of instinct, but for robots it requires painstakingly detailed instructions.