Atlantic Cities

In the Future, We Will Jog with Robots (Maybe)

In the Future, We Will Jog with Robots (Maybe)
Exertion Games Lab

For many people, jogging requires a ton of motivation. From peeling oneself off the couch each day to avoiding dog-doo cluster bombs to, uhm, bodily "irritations," the activity is not for the sluggish of spirit.

But could robots change that?

These guys from the Exertion Games Lab at Melbourne's RMIT University think it's entirely possible that robots could buck up lackadaisical runners. They've built a prototype, the Joggobot, that flies in front of joggers to urge them to keep up the pace. The idea is to provide a running companion for people who cannot locate an actual flesh-and-blood one, although it would also be good for folks who shun humanity for the no-pressure company of bots.

Think a whirring quadcopter is a poor substitute for a track buddy? Then you might be surprised at how readily runners have accepted the Joggobot. During test trials, the designers found that people seemed to enjoy exercising with it:

We mentioned already that people like to approach robots as social beings. Nevertheless, we were surprised at how quickly  users attributed social characteristics to Joggobot: they said things such as "it’s tired now" when the battery was empty; they felt angry when it was too fast for them. This can be important for designers, as it changes how to prioritize implementation aspects. For example, we did not consider the visual appearance of the robot initially, but this feedback suggests that changing the robot’s look, like adding eyes, could enhance the user experiences.

(Other possible improvements: Adding a flamethrower to deal with the Joggobot's natural enemy, the TacoCopter, which distracts hungry joggers with air lifts of spicy meat and Monterrey Jack.)

The engineers developed the robot concept after noticing how joggers were bonding with the "ghost runners" in sports watches, like Garmin's Forerunner 610 or the Nike+. If these people were getting fired up about digital companions, they wondered, how engaged would they be with a physical presence right at their side?

So they acquired a Parrot AR.Drone, a quadcopter that is controlled via smartphone, and hacked it to be autonomous. The enhanced copter has a camera that fixates on a jogger's specially colored shirt, and uses it to keep a distance of about 10 feet away and 3 feet off the ground. Note that the bot cruises in front of the human. That's because the Aussies worried if they programmed it to fly from behind, people might feel like they're being chased by the robot which, in our day and age, is a totally valid concern.

Users can switch the Joggobot into "companion mode," causing it to stick close by like a puppy, or into a more aggressive "coach mode" that has it zipping ahead like a racetrack hare. If it loses sight of the jogger, the machine lands and waits patiently for someone to retrieve it.

Floyd Mueller, a lead designer who also helped build the Xbox Kinect, said recently that many people have compared his aircraft to this dismaying taxidermic-cat copter. While the Joggobot team is unlikely to offer that particular skin as an add-on, in future models they are toying with the idea of giving the device the ability to track heart rates and make the according adjustments in speed.

The Joggobot is still mostly an experiment to see how people might engage with robots for exercise. It works best in gyms and outside on windless days, as a moderate breeze can throw it off track and into some lady's hair. The copter also doesn't have a camera monitoring what's in front of it, so there's the danger of it steering a collision course into another runner's chest. And not to criticize this interesting idea too much, but for a "companion," the Joggobot sure doesn't have a great personality. Or a personality, period. Perhaps the designers could fix this by adding in the motivational voice of R. Lee Ermey?

On the plus side, this promotional video indicates that it has both a "slow roll" and a "dance" function. Even the most game of jogging partners might not be willing to do a slow roll on your command.

John Metcalfe is a staff writer at The Atlantic Cities. All posts »

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