How to Design Visually Appealing AI Robots to People

There are enough artificial intelligence (AI) robots being designed these days that within a few years, you’ll probably not be far from one at many times in your lives, especially if you live in a city. Some of these robots elicit a positive reaction from people. Others, not so much. Some of this is due to what they do, but a lot of it is due to what they look like. Yes, we’re humans. We judge a lot of things, or form a lot of our judgement of things, including people, unfortunately, by their looks. We also seem to feel threatened in getting replaced by robots if they were too much like us. So what can one do to create a more visually appealing robot? Here are some thoughts.

  • Don’t make them look very human
  • Make them look cute, not threatening or inanimate
  • Big eyes
  • Smile
  • 2-3 colour scheme
  • No awkward interfaces
  • Don’t mix design styles
  • Child or pet like looks and behaviours
  • Fun and not technical voice

Don’t make them look very human

We humans have problems accepting other humans that look the slightest differently from us, never mind robots that are still far from having all of our idiosyncrasies down! Making robots that are too much like us, but still not quite like us, just creeps out a lot of people. It’s like interacting with that person that creeps us out if they were human. Now, to get robots that are more like humans, you have to make many that fall short of the standard to improve each one. However, you don’t have to put them out in the public or at the consumer level for years yet.

You can make these robots humanoid, but as long as they’re easily recognizable as not being human, like the NAO robot from (Aldebaran) Softbank Robots.

Make them look cute, not threatening or inanimate

Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, for sure. However, there are many ways to make a robot look cute rather than threatening. Just look around at the things you find cute and there are probably a few traits that stand out. I’ve outlined some possibilities below, but some designs just seem to be intent on being impersonal, technical and robotic, like we’d accept any robot as long as it does enough of what we’re looking for. Sorry to tell you but as a species, we’re far from that level of non-discrimination.

Big eyes

From pets to people to anime and cartoons, big eyes have it. But again, don’t try to make it look like almost real human eyes due to the suggestion above not to make them look too human. Just make the eyes big, even if it’s big relative to their face. This Segway robot, now in alpha developer version called Loomo, has simple and relatively big eyes.

Smile

A smile is a universal greeting and symbol of friendliness. If the mouth of your robot can’t move, or even if you weren’t going to design a mouth, putting something like a smile on it will be worth far more than the effort to making your robot more likable. Pepper has a smile that never disappears.

2-3 bright colours Scheme

Bright colours are attractive. Keep the colour scheme simple, though, like 2-3 colours you often see with sports team uniforms. They’re not crazy complex in colours for good reasons! NAO above is pretty simple in colours as you can see.

No awkward interfaces

Pepper above is a nice robot, but that chest interface just doesn’t appeal to me. I see the practicality in having it there to leave it with free arms, and maybe nowhere else that’s convenient to put the interface, so I don’t have a solution to suggest. However, having to stare at a person’s chest during part of interactions, and worse, tapping it for some interactions as if it were an iPad, as some Pepper interactions are designed to work, just isn’t very natural.

The thing with robots is that you can put things wherever, though. You can put that interface on Pepper’s chest, or attach to the outside of its arms like you and I could not have. The latter would be tricky for balance and strength required on the joints to move that arm around, so I understand why they didn’t do it. However, I’m just bringing up a reminder. Maybe use a projector like some people had proposed smart phones have built in to show things on a bigger scale than the tiny phone screen. Maybe Pepper could just have a phone screen like a watch on its wrist. Most people in the world could function with a phone sized screen these days, not needing an iPad or larger tablet for most things. Or even a “phablet” rather than tablet sized screen on its chest would be less awkward for Pepper.

Don’t mix design styles

What I mean by this is don’t mix elements of design from different styles into one design, like tech and cartoon. I don’t like to criticize but the Aido robot is an example of what I’m talking about here. It’s pretty technical looking except for digital eyes that look like a cartoon (artsy and soft) on a technical and firm design otherwise.

Examples where you can have big eyes, even cute animation like but not like that, keeping a tech theme would be like the fictitious, but technically possible in design, Wall-E.

Maybe a perfect example of (relatively) big eyes, digital to allow easier expressions of the eyes, but still technical, is Cozmo. The face is a very tiny space, but in it, the eyes are relatively big for how much area it takes up. You can see that and easily love it, even though the eyes aren’t technically large. The digital pixel make up of the eyes keeps a tech look to the tech robot, but allows for adorable animation.

Child or pet like look and behaviours

People love kids and pets, in general. We love little versions of ourselves, even if not all that much like ourselves possibly to them not seeming to be threatening with size, and animals for pets. Designing something small like Nao, or animal like with CHiP the robot dog, gives the robot a lot of instant likability from visual appeal. With algorithms not yet advanced enough to make robots all that human, a nice fall back is to make it a bit child-like and pet-like. Cozmo above demonstrates what’s possible and how fun it is! Some simple gestures and routines is all it takes. Even if there weren’t a lot to it, like with CHiP the robot dog that doesn’t talk or do anything really “human” (yet until they let me or others hack into it), people would still take to it well. Note CHiP also has big eyes, but not cartoon-like to mix tech with cartoon design elements. Now, if they’d only blink or rotate a bit… simple stuff that could be incorporated that is good value for code size involved. 🙂

Fun and not technical voice

While not visually physical, a voice is very much a physical property. A robot like Pepper is easier to understand than Cozmo, yes, but it sounds too much like a call waiting system or automated phone system. We generally don’t have good reactions to those systems. If the voice were just a little less mechanical or technical, it would take our minds off that and give the robot a feel of a being rather than a machine. I do like Aldebaran’s improvement in voice from Pepper to Nao, though.

Conclusions

If I were to summarize all the suggestions here, I would boil it down to not making the robot very human. We’re still far from humanizing robots, and farther from accepting things close to us but not quite like us, especially if they look close enough to replace us. Get around that by making the robot less human, and less threatening, in the ways suggested.

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