Marek Michalowski (CS '07) is in a Los Angeles hotel room, trying to catch his breath and catch up on email. The popularity of his dancing robot, Keepon, has had him in Denmark, Korea, Japan and now the City of Angels in a matter of weeks.
"It's been kind of crazy," said Michalowski, who is a Ph.D. candidate in Carnegie Mellon's Robotics Institute. His wildly popular YouTube video showing Keepon dancing to the band Spoon's "I Turn My Camera On" inspired WIRED Magazine to produce a professionally directed follow-up video.
Keepon—and a newer prototype named Roillo—are both part of Michalowski's "Beatbots" project. Through his research, Michalowski hopes to demonstrate that rhythmic synchrony (in dance-oriented play with children) has a positive effect on human-robot social interaction.
Spoon recently joined Michalowski in Tokyo for the filming of a more narrative video, set to the song "Don't You Evah" from their new album "Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga." The video features Keepon dancing around Tokyo with Hideki Kozima, Keepon's developer.
The trip marked Michalowski's third time working at the National Institute of Information and Communications Technology (NICT) with Kozima. A team from NHK, Japan's national public broadcasting station, came to the lab to film them for a show that aired in early September.
While in Denmark, Michalowski attended the Robots at Play festival, exhibiting Keepon & the BeatBots—a robotic dance troupe consisting of four Keepons moving in synchrony with music, with each other, and with movements of participants' Nintendo Wii controllers. The event took place in the middle of the Odense city square with lots of other robotic art and research projects. Keepon won the 10,000 Euro prize.
In Korea, Michalowski won Best Interactive Demonstration at the RO-MAN 2007 conference.
"Now we are in Los Angeles, where on Monday we will be displaying Keepon at a Spoon concert, and later in the week at WIRED NextFest," said Michalowski.
Carnegie Mellon Research Professor Reid Simmons, who serves as faculty advisor to Michalowski, said, "Rhythm is very important in human-human interaction, so it is not surprising that it is so compelling in human-robot interaction."
He explains, "People see Keepon dancing to the music, and it looks so alive to them. Marek's work is addressing the fluidity of interaction that is a hallmark of humans, but is all too often missing from robots."
Michalowski received his master's degree in robotics from Carnegie Mellon in 2007. He credits the multidisciplinary nature of the Robotics Institute and the ease of communicating with colleagues in other fields—such as Human-Computer Interaction, Social Sciences, Design, Drama and Art—for encouraging him to think about human-robot interaction in a different way.
"It helped me to bring unconventional techniques to bear on the problem," he said.