Researchers from the Georgia Institute of Technology have discovered that a new interface system could help people with motor impairments operate a human-like robot to independently feed themselves and perform day-to-day personal care tasks.

The study used a combination of augmented reality technology and a web-based interface to display a “robot’s eye view” of surroundings to help users interact with the world through the machine. According to the Georgia Institute of Technology, the system could help make robots more accessible to people in the future.

Study participants interacted with the robot interface using standard assistive computer access technologies — such as eye trackers and head trackers — that they were already using to control their own personal computers.

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The research revealed that these robots, which can perform similar tasks to humans, could greatly improve the quality of life for users.

“Our results suggest that people with profound motor deficits can improve their quality of life using robotic body surrogates,” said Phillip Grice, a recent Georgia Institute of Technology Ph.D. graduate who is first author of the paper. “We have taken the first step toward making it possible for someone to purchase an appropriate type of robot, have it in their home and derive real benefit from it.”

Phillip and Professor Charlie Kemp, from the Wallace H. Coulter Department of Biomedical Engineering at Georgia Tech and Emory University, used a PR2 mobile manipulator for the two studies. The wheeled robot has 20 degrees of freedom, with two arms and a “head,” giving it the ability to manipulate objects such as water bottles, washcloths, hairbrushes and an electric shaver.

“Our goal is to give people with limited use of their own bodies access to robotic bodies so they can interact with the world in new ways,” said Professor Kemp.

In their first study, Phillip and Professor Kemp made the PR2 available across the internet to a group of 15 participants with severe motor impairments.

The participants learned to control the robot remotely, using their own assistive equipment to operate a mouse cursor to perform a personal care task. The results showed that four out of five participants could manipulate the robot to pick up a water bottle and bring it to the mouth of a mannequin.

In the second study, the researchers provided the PR2 and interface system to Henry Evans, a man who has been helping Georgia Tech researchers study and improve assistive robotic systems since 2011. He has very limited control of his body and tested the robot in his home for seven days.

During that week, Henry managed to create novel uses combining the operation of both robot arms at the same time – using one arm to control a washcloth and the other to use a brush.

“The system was very liberating to me, in that it enabled me to independently manipulate my environment for the first time since my stroke,” said Henry.

“When we gave Henry free access to the robot for a week, he found new opportunities for using it that we had not anticipated,” added Phillip. “This is important because a lot of the assistive technology available today is designed for very specific purposes. What Henry has shown is that this system is powerful in providing assistance and empowering users. The opportunities for this are potentially very broad.”

The web-based interface shows users what the world looks like from cameras located in the robot’s head. Clickable controls overlaid on the view allow the users to move the robot around in a home or other environment and control the robot’s hands and arms.

When users move the robot’s head, for instance, the screen displays the mouse cursor as a pair of eyeballs to show where the robot will look when the user clicks. Clicking on a disc surrounding the robotic hands allows users to select a motion. While driving the robot around a room, lines following the cursor on the interface indicate the direction it will travel.

“Having an interface that individuals with a wide range of physical impairments can operate means we can provide access to a broad range of people, a form of universal design,” Phillip noted. “Because of its capability, this is a very complex system, so the challenge we had to overcome was to make it accessible to individuals who have very limited control of their own bodies.”

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