What is Giant Tactile Robots?
Air Giants are a creative robotics company making a new kind of giant (typically 5-10m) interactive soft robot using fabric, air, and computing. Throughout their multiple exhibitions including public art and festivals, they have seen a big appetite for large-scale close-up tactile interaction between humans and their huge soft robots, both upper-body interactions (strokes and hugs) but also whole-body interactions (leaning in, sitting on, being enclosed, being lifted and moved by the robot). This happens even though their robots do not currently detect touch or respond to it in meaningful ways. Air Giant’s visitor surveys have confirmed this which often mention these interactions.
Interactions with their giant robots need to go both ways, so the robot detects touch and responds to it in haptically interesting ways (shape change, surface vibration, supporting and moving the person). These interactions engage the tactile, proprioceptive, and vestibular senses in ways which are rarely explored and show great promise for compelling interactions. There is no conventionally-deployed technology to do either the detection or response in a safe and economical way.
To achieve this, Air Giants are pairing up with the Bristol Interaction Group, an academic group specialized in the interactions between humans and technology. Bristol Interaction Group will be studying how users interact with their prototypes, looking at the vocabulary of touch and at what emotional power these interactions can have, to let Air Giants understand what these new capabilities can be used for.
An insight into Air Giants
Air Giants is a new creative robotic studio founded in 2020. They are based in Bristol and comprise a small team of artists, roboticists, puppeteers and software engineers.
They make a new kind of giant joyful robot, huge soft creatures which are supported and animated by air using their own novel technology. The robots are built to interact closely with people, responding to and engaging with both crowds and individuals by instigating games and displaying different moods and personalities. The robots have a genuine feeling of life and are a rare experience in a world in which large robots are usually locked up in factories.
Air Giants are eager collaborators, working with other creative industries and with academics. They are always working to develop their creatures both creatively and technologically, and are always looking for new fields in which they might make a contribution.
What are Air Giants’ goals?
Air Giant’s goals are to:
- Build the technology to sense touch over large inflated surfaces, both economically and with adequate spatial resolution and timeliness;
- Build the actuations that can respond in emotionally-effective ways
- Understand how humans interact with giant tactile robots to create new interaction paradigms
- Understand how these interactions can dovetail into VR, AR, XR experiences to add meaning and storytelling opportunities.
There’s a lot of new territory to explore both creatively and academically. Although there has been a lot of work on haptic interaction with robots and digital systems, it is nearly all focused on small-scale interaction with the hands. Very little of it uses the whole body or engages the rich interactions that develop when people start to entrust their weight to the robot or move around bodily with the robot.
Giant Tactile Robots will open up the space for interacting with soft robots, impacting the fields of Soft Robotics and Human-Computer Interaction. Giant tactile robots will be present in public art, in virtual reality, within the theme park industry, digital health and well-being, e.g. to create innovative sensory environments for children with special needs.