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September 25, 2018

This mirror-wielding robot arm behaves in a freakily lifelike manner

by John_A

Whether it’s the weird, illogical sympathy you feel when a robot dog is kicked or the unsettling “uncanny valley” effect when computer graphics come close to generating a human face, but just falls short, there is some weird territory to investigate when it comes to the creation of lifelike machines. That’s something that German-based artist Piet Schmidt explores with his new work, “Encounter.”

Taking the form of a robot arm holding a mirror, the robot will respond to people by angling the mirror in their direction. So far, so typical smart home device, right? Perhaps, but the really intriguing part of “Encounter” is the strangely lifelike way in which it reacts. Like a nervous animal, it will retract in a seemingly fearful manner as a person approaches, but then follow them with apparent curiosity if they back up. After a while, it will even get used to them and start acting playful, angling the mirror in different ways as it does.

“I am interested in how humans build connections and [relate] to machines,” Schmidt told Digital Trends. “Certain behaviors and appearances seem to trigger humans to interpret intentions or even emotions in inanimate objects. I want to create an encounter between people and a machine — an encounter evoking an uncanny feeling that will let you [feel] torn between treating it like a machine or a living being. It leaves us confused [regarding] our intuitive perception that is trained to distinguish animate from inanimate.”

On a technical level, the arm is actuated using networked smart servos, inverse kinematic algorithms, and 3D noise fields. Meanwhile, the head-tracking and mirror aligning is achieved using an Xbox Kinect. The result is impressively naturalistic in its movement: building on the idea that the machine is somewhat alive. This is bolstered by the use of the mirror which, Schmidt said, is intended to make us feel as if we are forming a complete entity with the machine — with our own face becoming its face.

“[“Encounter”] has been premiered at Rundgang, the annual exhibition of the University of the Arts, Berlin,” Schmidt said. “I am looking forward to [exhibiting at] media art events, though no dates can be confirmed at this point.”

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