Computer Science and Engineering, Department of


Date of this Version



Published in Autonomous Robots 30 (2011), pp. 143–156; doi 10.1007/s10514-010-9210-3


Copyright © 2010 Springer Science+Business Media, LLC. Used by permission.


Seven flying robot “fairies” joined human actors in the Texas A&M production of William Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. The production was a collaboration between the departments of Computer Science and Engineering, Electrical and Computer Engineering, and Theater Arts. The collaboration was motivated by two assertions. First, that the performing arts have principles for creating believable agents that will transfer to robots. Second, the theater is a natural testbed for evaluating the response of untrained human groups (both actors and the audience) to robots interacting with humans in shared spaces, i.e., were believable agents created? The production used two types of unmanned aerial vehicles, an AirRobot 100-b quadrotor platform about the size of a large pizza pan, and six E-flite Blade MCX palm-sized toy helicopters. The robots were used as alter egos for fairies in the play; the robots did not replace any actors, instead they were paired with them. The insertion of robots into the production was not widely advertised so the audience was the typical theatergoing demographic, not one consisting of people solely interested technology. The use of radio-controlled unmanned aerial vehicles provides insights into what types of autonomy are needed to create appropriate affective interactions with untrained human groups. The observations from the four weeks of practice and eight performances contribute (1) a taxonomy and methods for creating affect exchanges between robots and untrained human groups, (2) the importance of improvisation within robot theater, (3) insights into how untrained human groups form expectations about robots, and (4) awareness of the importance of safety and reliability as a design constraint for public engagement with robot platforms. The taxonomy captures that apparent affect can be created without explicit affective behaviors by the robot, but requires talented actors to convey the situation or express reactions. The audience’s response to robot crashes was a function of whether they had the opportunity to observe how the actors reacted to robot crashes on stage, suggesting that pre-existing expectations must be taken into account in the design of autonomy. Furthermore, it appears that the public expect robots to be more reliable (an expectation of consumer product hardening) and safe (an expectation from product liability) than the current capabilities and this may be a major challenge or even legal barrier for introducing robots into shared public spaces. These contributions are expected to inform design strategies for increasing public engagement with robot platforms through affect, and shows the value of arts-based approaches to public encounters with robots both for generating design strategies and for evaluation.