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Service robot

The Importance of Eye Contact

The "Workerbot_9" is designed to support nursing staff in hospitals and retirement homes

With a friendly smile, he carries a tray behind his back and moves along the ward corridor at a leisurely pace of around one kilometer per hour. The nursing staff have placed a plate of special food on his folding tray, which he is about to deliver to a patient. He is also equipped with twelve bottles of water to distribute to thirsty patients. Later, he will ring Mr. Huber's doorbell and ask if he may accompany him to his afternoon exercise class.

He? Perhaps the "Workerbot_9 Care-Home" from the company pi4 is a she? "Robots don't have a gender," says Professor Linda Onnasch from the Chair of Psychology of Action and Automation at TU Berlin. "Robots are not planning anything either – even if we humans are rather quick in assuming that they have a will of their own," she says. In her research, Linda Onnasch is investigating the pitfalls in communication between humans and machines. "A face with natural-looking eyes is helpful, for example." This is because eye movements are the quickest indicator of the direction of a robot's actions – much quicker, for example, than when arrows instead of eyes symbolize the same thing.

The "Workerbot_9" is ready to order; a preliminary version was developed by pi4 together with TU Berlin and other higher education institutions in the project "RoMi – Roboterunterstützung bei Routineaufgaben zur Stärkung des Miteinanders in Pflegeeinrichtungen", which looked at how robotic support with routine tasks can strengthen the quality and quantity of personal interactions in care facilities. The project received funding from the Federal Ministry of Education and Research. "The project name is long, but good. It describes exactly what the project is about: relieving nursing staff of time-consuming and stressful everyday tasks so that they can spend more time with the patients on their ward," explains Onnasch. "This also helps make the profession more attractive again."

In order to find the optimal design for the workerbot, the researchers at TU Berlin conducted online surveys consulting nursing staff and several hundred people. They also gave VR headsets to test groups and placed them in a virtual environment with robots, and eventually set up a test ward with patient rooms at the Charité University Hospital in Berlin.

To make it suitable for all kinds of situations and users, the workerbot can be controlled by voice, touchscreen or app. "The development of the voice control in particular was no easy feat, because we were not allowed to use existing cloud services for data protection reasons," says Onnasch.

The fact that the workerbot looks more like a human than an animal (horses, bears, penguins and swans would have been alternative options) is not purely due to the preferences of the interviewees. "If it looks too cute, people won't want to burden the device too much and would thus use it less often," says Onnasch. The tests showed that a size of 1.70 meters was perceived as non-threatening, which means that the robot is now capable of carrying a fair bit and can even have an arm in the future. It cannot, however, fulfill one of the greatest wishes of nursing staff: a digital solution to relieve them of their time-consuming paperwork.

Author: Wolfgang Richter