VTT Technical Research Centre of Finland Ltd and the Ideapark shopping centre in Lempäälä are developing a service robot to interact autonomously and naturally in the dynamic environments of a public shopping centre.
Trials involving interactive service robots are moving away from development laboratories and into the everyday environments of consumers, where they will soon begin to offer various services that benefit and entertain customers. "A social robot is easy to program to provide information and guidance, but the technical capabilities of robots are still inadequate for creating good interaction and customer experiences, and we need practical information about interaction between robots and humans", explains VTT's Project Manager Marketta Niemelä.
VTT and the Ideapark Lempäälä shopping centre are Finland's representatives in an EU-funded research project called MuMMER (MultiModal Mall Entertainment Robot), which will run for four years. The project involves developing the robot's audiovisual sensor data and social signal processing, i.e. the robot's ability to read situations and choose the correct function on that basis, as well as its ability to move around in crowds of people. The project partners include universities, research organisations and businesses from Scotland, France, Switzerland and Finland.
VTT's and Ideapark's role in the project is to make the social robot's interaction skills more natural and entertaining. VTT is responsible for aspects relating to testing, users and services. "The idea is to use the interactive service robot to provide entertainment, information and guidance to the shopping centre's customers, and it will not replace human staff", Niemelä explains.
Pepper is 120 centimetres tall, and it reacts to eye contact and greetings. Properties that still require work include, among others, the robot's ability to identify which customer to approach, how to begin and continue interaction as well as what the customer wants so that it can serve the customer in the right way. The aim is for Pepper to also be able to converse with several people at the same time.
Pepper serves the customers of Ideapark
Preliminary studies and practical trials are a big part of MuMMER, as the project is designed to study people's attitudes towards social robots. The robot will be introduced to Ideapark's customers in stages. The shopping centre's customers, businesses and other stakeholders will get a chance to develop Pepper's services.
VTT will organise workshops, interviews and practical trials to brainstorm and develop new ways to use the robot and its interaction skills, as well as to collect information about people's social behaviour in interactive situations. Another aim is to study how people's attitude towards and expectations of service robots change in the shopping centre. It is likely that Pepper will increase people's interest in robotics and the possibilities that robots represent in terms of services.
The field tests will take place in a shopping centre, which is an extremely challenging environment for a robot. The large number of people present, the complexities of navigating vast spaces, and the colourful soundscape will challenge the robot's ability to interpret what goes on around it. The Finnish language also brings its own challenges, and for now Pepper only communicates in English.
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Media resources on the Pepper service robot:
The Japanese-French Pepper is a 120-cm tall service robot designed to interact with people. Among other things, Pepper can tell whether a person is in a good mood and react accordingly.