Physicality and Synthetic Reality

Mari Velonaki, Steve Scheding, Iain Brown & David Rye

Social robotics is an emerging field of endeavour that aims to explore the relationships (and possible relationships) that humans and machines may share. These relationships are unusual in the broader field of human-machine interaction in that they are often realised in a physical way, in a physical space. Rather than construct an artificial agent that exists in a virtual space that the human must enter, the agent is given a physical embodiment through which it may enter the human's space.

A primary goal of the authors is to construct machines in such a way as to foster complex social relationships between humans and machines, and to do this in a way that is non-threatening and instinctively intuitive. These goals raise many issues from understanding the social nature of human beings, to issues of trust and intimacy, through to the design of the artificial agents. These issues are inherently multi-disciplinary and can only begin to be understood by examination from a multitude of view-points.

This paper will examine in detail one aspect of the broader issues raised: what part does physicality play in the human-machine relationship? The question will be examined with input from the viewpoint of practitioners in the fields of media art, robotics, psychology and philosophy. A case study, Circle D: Fragile Balances, will be used to illustrate many of the ideas and issues raised in the discussion. Fragile Balances is an interactive artwork that consists of two luminous cube-like objects each comprised of four screens where 'handwritten' text appears, wrapping around the screens and conveying a playful sense of rhythm. The text represents personal messages that flow between two virtual characters, and in that sense each object is a physical embodiment of a character. The characters are in fact two physical robots realised in a prior artwork, Fish-Bird Circle B: Movement C, that also inhabit a physical space in a different geographical location.

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