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Engineering personality into robots

Robots that have personalities and interact with humans have long been the preserve of sci-fi films, although usually portrayed by actors in costumes or CGI. However, as the field of robotics develops, these robots are becoming real. Technology journalist Richard Gray talks to Matt Denton, electrical software and robotics engineer, and Lee Towersey, amateur robot builder, about the scene-stealing, real-life Star Wars droids.

With stars such as Harrison Ford and Carrie Fisher walking the red carpet at the world premiere of the most recent ROBOTS ON SCREEN

Robots have been appearing in films for nearly 100 years. The first known appearance of one on the big screen was in the 1927 German silent movie, NEW TECHNOLOGY

As servomotors (which allow for precise control of angular or linear position, velocity and acceleration), and perhaps more importantly, the microcontrollers needed to coordinate their actions have improved and grown smaller, the possibilities in robotics have opened up. Suddenly, directors have found that they can get their robotic stars to convey emotion and even personality.

“There was only so much we could do with R2-D2 to give him character,” says Towersey. “He can drive around, we can rotate his head and he can make sounds.


BB-8’s personality is engineered through the ability to tilt and turn its head. Throughout the film, these simple movements show the viewer the droid’s emotions and give it an almost childlike personality © Lucasfilm Ltd. & TM.All Rights Reserved

“However, BB-8 is much more interactive. I think a lot of kids who grew up with the prequel films, which had extensive CGI in them, expected BB-8 to be computer generated, so when they saw that it was a real robot moving about, they were blown away.” Computer-generated graphics became a major component of the HOW BB-8 WAS BROUGHT TO LIFE

Matt Denton and Josh Lee toyed with several approaches to cracking the problem presented to them by director JJ Abrams for


Outside the movie industry, robots have been largely consigned to performing repetitive, mechanical tasks, but as they start to move into people’s homes and everyday life, researchers are taking some lessons from Hollywood.

Dr Cynthia Breazeal from the Personal Robots Group at Massachusetts Institute of Technology has been developing what she describes as sociable robots. It began with an anthropomorphic robotic head called Kismet that could express itself by adjusting its gaze or facial movement but has since progressed into a fluffy 2.5-foot-tall robot called Leonardo, which features a visual tracking system so that it can interact with children. More recently, her team has developed a humanoid robot called Nexi, which has arms that move along with the face to make its body language realistic; with a flick of its eyebrows and clenching of its fists, Nexi can skip from joy into anger and then sadness.


There is no universal programming language for robots so manufacturers of robotics hardware tend to develop their own unique software to achieve the results they want.

In films, robots and animatronic characters are usually controlled using joysticks, which often means that their movement can look unnatural as the joysticks have little weight and so can be moved quickly around while the robot has to act against gravity and other forces in the real world.

Matt Denton has spent years studying how real organisms move in nature to find ways of replicating this within the control software. By including feedback loops and data filtering into the software, he has found that it is possible to remove the twitchiness that can make a robot move in a less realistic way. Other tricks include programming in a feature that means wherever a character is looking is forward. In a robot such as BB-8, this can make controlling it much easier.

Then there is Pepper, a Japanese creation built by Softbank Robotics, that uses artificial intelligence to give the $1,600 humanoid ‘emotions’ so that it can be used in shops or for customer service. Voice recognition allows it to recognise when it is being chastised and it responds by adopting a crestfallen pose or, if someone is feeling down, it will try to make them happy with unrelenting cheerfulness.

Toyota has also unveiled a diminutive robot called Kirobo mini, which has been designed to be a ‘communication partner’ and has since been touted by others as a companion for childless couples. With large eyes that blink, a high-pitched voice and a wobble as if it hasn’t quite cracked how to balance, it has a vulnerability that its designers say makes it cute. The robot can hold a basic conversation, make hand gestures and respond to human emotions.

There are even some who are hoping robots will become actors in their own right. Researchers at Osaka University in Japan have created an android they call Geminoid F that has been designed to look and behave just like a human. Actuators powered by air pressure beneath its rubber skin allow the robot to copy human facial expressions and mouth voice recordings.

It has already appeared in one film, HOW TO ENGINEER A ROBOT

Denton and Lee are now considering publishing the schematics in the future to allow schools and young engineers to build their own BB-8. The robot demonstrates some good engineering principles such as gyroscopic forces, electrical engineering, software and magnetism, and much of the technology needed to build it, such as the motors and gyroscope sensors, are available off the shelf.

One area that they are quiet on the details about is the problem of getting BB-8’s head to stay on top of its spherical body while still letting it move around freely. Although Denton does say that they had obvious help to crack that problem – the Force.


Matt Denton left school in 1989 and completed a four-year apprenticeship in electronic engineering with Marconi Defence Systems. In 1993, he started a degree in computer-based electronic engineering at the University of Portsmouth. During his first year, he had a summer job with a small special FX company at Ealing Studios and didn’t return to complete his degree. Matt formed Micromagic Systems in 1998 and has been specialising in control systems for creature effects ever since.

Lee Towersey built his own R2-D2 in 2009, which has been used in a Currys TV advertising campaign along with many other promotional events on behalf of Lucasfilm. He joined the team of Star Wars: The Force Awakens in 2013 to build and operate droids for the film, and has also worked on droids for Rogue One, Star Wars Episode VIII and the as yet untitled Han Solo film.

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