October 29, 2020

Our Telepresence Buddy, RyBot

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Assistant Coach Maddie talks about the Embodied Interactions studio...

As we all know, this year has been a rollercoaster, and even through the pandemic, people everywhere have been able to find their own silver linings. Embodied Interactions is a studio built on how to imagine, design, and innovate in this new world, and create our own silver linings.

The studio aims to task students with designing robotic interventions that can help construct and mend the unique social dynamics that have arisen due to the pandemic. With a new world of online interaction, students are challenged to add a level of expression and emotion through telepresent machines that can connect people around the world.

In line with this concept, Ryan, a longtime NuVu Coach and robotics and CAD master, decided to respond to his own prompt. As he knew he would be remotely coaching through this studio, he took the opportunity to create his own telepresence bot that he could use in studio. He sketched, designed, printed, and built what we now call “RyBot”.

We rolled RyBot out at the start of our second week of the Embodied Interactions studio. It was a really exciting way to start off the students’ first official week of prototyping their first NuVu projects. I was onsite, and ran off while RyBot rolled in. Safe to say RyBot is a huge hit. Not only does it make it easier for Ryan to be a part of the studio when onsite, but it is a crucial morale boost whenever we pull RyBot out.

During times like this, having some excitement and positive new experiences can bring life to a group. The students not only are able to talk with Ryan through RyBot, but they are able to show him their work and walk through their prototyping process with Ryan in real time.

Over the past two weeks, Rybot has also brought along an unexpected phenomenon. As RyBot couldn’t always move successfully through the small areas of the space, the students began to direct and guide RyBot - even picking him up sometimes and carrying him to the right spot! They ran around RyBot, moving things out of the way, drawing RyBot faces, attaching speech bubbles, and much more. 

And just like that, the students accomplished our studio goal without even knowing it. They adapted, adjusted, and worked together to create a whole new way of engaging and communicating with a coach. And, in the final two weeks of this studio, it is clear that this concept has been fully grasped by the group of students - they have developed unique and useful telepresence bots, bringing friendship, kindness, and excitement to life, while also designing practical and functional projects for this new world. One group’s design includes a wearable cuff that simulates the touch of a loved one’s hand using pressure sensors and servo actuators. Another capitalizes on their own experience to fabricate a device for educators on Zoom to better interpret student feedback and body language. A third group is constructing a wifi-enabled cereal dispenser, allowing friends and family to design and craft custom breakfast surprises from afar.

Not only has this studio adapted to the situation in our current world, but it is discovering and developing bots to improve and support people in these new environments.

Coach Ryan shares more about the making of RyBot:

Not wanting to miss out on the fun, and knowing that I would be teaching this studio remotely, I decided what better way to lead a studio about telepresence, than via a telepresence robot? 

So, I hacked together a phone operated robotic platform that allows me to move around the NuVu space and interact with my students more directly. Intended to be a low-cost alternative to existing telepresence devices, the bot consists of aluminum extrusions, a wifi-connected microcontroller, and some 3D-printed parts. It carries an iPad connected to Zoom, which I use to chat with students and facilitate collaborative sketch sessions during one on one critiques. In addition to extending my physical mobility and capacity to assist the students, the machine also offers a hackable platform for students to test out their own projects and upgrade the bot’s abilities. 

Last week, one student attached a motorized hand to the bot’s central column, allowing me to wave to the studio as I rolled by. In the coming weeks, I hope the bot will take on a life of its own within NuVu’s studio culture, giving students the chance to hack and upgrade their own hybrid-learning experience while physically interacting with classmates they haven’t gotten to see as a consequence of the hybrid model. I’m excited to document our observations and insights from this experience as we consider its application within future tele-education environments.