Tofu at the MIT Media Lab
Before going to MIT, my experience was very technical: control systems, embedded systems, digital signal processing, computer aided design / manufacturing, and other areas of focus. After enough math classes, you get the hang of learning and what keeps you up at night is applications, which is when I decided to become a designer.
In 2010 I finished a masters degree in Media Arts and Sciences in the Personal Robotics Group, at the MIT Media Lab. My work focused on ways robots can interact with children. My advisers included Cynthia Breazeal, Mitchel Resnick, and Edith Ackermann.
Tofu and Miso are two fluffy robots for children. I made them at the lab, and the work I did was mainly focused on exploring how children interact with the robots. A common question is something along the lines of “you went to MIT to make robot birds?”. My response is yes, and the reason is simply that I think robots for children is an area that has potential in society.
Toys will become smarter and more interactive in the future, and from my perspective be able to enable a number of modalities such as language learning. One interesting application is also therapy. Child psychologist will often use an object like a teddy bear as a “transitional object” which enables working through emotions. “Can you tell the teddy bear how you feel” being an example.
My work focused on exploring how children view these robots at different ages. My thesis is online for those looking to deep dive into the subject, but the short answer is that children are great at creating imaginary worlds mentally, and although they know that the robot is just a robot, they are also willing to look past this and include the robot in their imaginary worlds.
During my time at the lab I presented findings at events such as IDC (Interaction Design for Children) and the Future of Health Summit. I also collaborated with toy designers from Hasbro and animators from Pixar, who were instrumental in distilling the core elements of expression robots are capable of. These lessons were presented in Interaction Magazine in an article tilted “Only Robots on the Inside”.