A Social Robot and Data Sonification in the Caring Apartment

Large-scale project at Cluster of Excellence CITEC nearing completion

What makes an intelligent apartment socially competent, allowing it to provide optimal support to its guests? Researchers at Bielefeld University’s Cluster of Excellence Cognitive Interaction Technology (CITEC) have been investigating this question in a large-scale project.  The main result of this project has been the creation of an intelligentapartment in the CITEC building, which can be used around the clock as a research apartment. Among the innovations developed by the researchers include an “emotional” robot head, a sound-based energy consumption notification system, and a light signaling system in the kitchen. The project, called the “caring apartment,” will be continued until end of december 2018. The researchers are presenting the results of their project this week at the international conference “Human Agent Interaction” (HAI), which is being held at CITEC. A new video gives a glimpse into the research on the cognitive robot service apartment.

“In this project, we have been researching how humans interact with an intelligent apartment in their everyday lives. How they can connect and communicate with it – and how a robot can help with this,” says CITEC researcher Professor Dr. Britta Wrede, who heads the project together with Privatdozent Dr. Sven Wachsmuth and Dr. Thomas Hermann. “The apartment adjusts to different situations and is not limited to individual services. This concept of flexible learning makes the apartment special,” explains the computer scientist.
Floka the Robot and its Facial Expressions
Prof. Dr. Britta Wrede, from the Cluster of Excellence CITEC, is one of leaders on this project, which networks Floka the robot – pictured here with a “social head” – with a smart apartment. Photo: CITEC/Bielefeld University A central part of the project is the service robot Floka. CITEC researchers connected it to the apartment’s sensors and control system. This allows the apartment to immediately direct the robot to where its assistance is needed. The robot’s head is exchangeable and perceives both color and depth. Floka’s “social head” was specially developed at CITEC, and it enables the robot to react to its human counterpart with facial expressions. “This form of body language ensures that what Floka says is more easily subconsciously understood by people,” says Dr. Sven Wachsmuth. According to studies at CITEC, a robot with emotional facial expressions is more readily accepted by humans as an assistant or conversation partner than a robot with a rather technical appearance. 

“The robot doesn’t just provide assistance. It also serves as a ‘contact person’ for guests so that they can speak to the apartment,” says Britta Wrede. “Otherwise, the users would just have to speak into the room – and this feels unnatural to many people.” Another contact person in the apartment is Flobi, who is actually also a robot. In the apartment, Flobi appears as an avatar (virtual character) on display screens. Flobi greets guests and helps them find their way around the kitchen.

Light Signals and Sonification of Technical Data
“Technical systems are often operated using computer screens and keyboards,” says Thomas Hermann. “In our smart apartment, we also work to bring information out of the display screens and into the room.” Illuminated cabinet handles show where the dishes can be found in the kitchen. With small symbol-objects, users can control the light and ambient sound in the bathroom. If the user, for instance, places the shell on the shelf, sea sounds are played and the light changes to blue.

Dr. Thomas Hermann (left) und PD Dr. Sven Wachsmuth (right) are heading the project together with Prof. Dr. Britta Wrede. The avatar Flobi (center) provides support in the kitchen to the apartment’s guests. Photo: CITEC/Bielefeld University In order to represent energy consumption in the apartment, the project uses sonification – the conversion of data into sound. With the light sound of a babbling brook, the apartment can make (if the user wants) baseline energy consumption audible. As soon as a device is turned on that uses a lot of energy, such as an electric tea kettle, the sound “swells” into a rain shower. With high energy consumption, apartment guests hear thunder rumbling. Increasing energy consumption is also visually represented: the “InfoPlant,” which is a green household plant, lights up yellow and lets one of its leaves “wilt” by sinking down.

A Lab for Researching the Future of Living
“That the apartment is smart and can provide assistance – that is one thing. But what also makes the apartment unique is that we can make it available to other research groups to use as an experimental environment,” says Dr. Sven Wachsmuth. In order to record human behavior in studies, the apartment is equipped with numerous sensors, including microphones, cameras, sensors to record movement, and tactile flooring. “By analyzing this data, the apartment learns how it can interact appropriately with its guests,” says Dr. Thomas Hermann. “It recognizes where people are moving, where they are looking, and it can listen to them and speak to them via Floka and the virtual robot Flobi.” At the “Human Agent Interaction” (HAI) conference this Tuesday in the CITEC building, CITEC researchers will discuss how the apartment can provide support to several people at the same time.
From the very beginning, this project has been about protecting user data in order to safeguard their privacy. “Recorded data is not in the Cloud, but is stored locally on our own network. Visitor data is encrypted with codes,” says Sven Wachsmuth. 
Use After Project Completion
The “Cognitive Robotics Service Apartment” (CSRA) project began in October 2013 and will run through the end of this month. In the future, this experimental apartment is planned to be used for new projects on Smart Home research, such as with the KogniHome Cluster of Innovation. This CITEC-coordinated project with regional partners has developed an intelligent apartment that provides support without service robots.
12 research groups from the Cluster of Excellence have been working together on CSRA, and CITEC invested approximately 1.8 million Euro in the large-scale project. CSRA is one of four large-scale projects at CITEC. The other large-scale projects include the walking robot Hector, the virtual training environment ICSpace, and self-learning root hands (Famula). As part of the Excellence Initiative of the Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft (German Research Foundation, DFG), CITEC is funded by state and federal governments (EXC 277).
More information is available online at:
Prof. Dr. Britta Wrede, Bielefeld University
Cluster of Excellence Cognitive Interaction Technology (CITEC) 
Telephone: +49 521 106-2953