Alphabot, 2010
Baltic birch wood, delrin, velcro, RFID reader and tags, custom electronics, radio transceiver, LEDs, motors, virtual character, blended reality animation software and audio  
12 x 12 x 12 inches (robot) 10 x 10 inches (wooden symbols)

This work was created in the Personal Robots Group at MIT Media Lab in close collaboration with Joseph Blatt from the Harvard Graduate School of Education.

This work was exhibited at Under the Dome during MIT's 150th Anniversary on April 30th, 2011.

Modeled after the late 17th-century, classic Alphabet Block educational toy, Alphabot is a crafted, wooden, mobile robot with the unique ability to fluidly transition between the physical world and virtual (and back again).  Transitions are made through an inter-reality portal or 'robot hutch'.

Alphabot is designed to be proportionally smaller than the youngest, standing child.  He moves predictably and slowly (optionally teleoperated by an adult caretaker) and his movements are constrained by two safety layers. Alphabot motivates specific play actions and gives immediate feedback.  He reacts to the wooden symbols placed on his front face by changing colors, making a sound or initiating a new scene in the larger, co-creative gaming environment. 

Similar to Tofulandia(for Miso) the play world extends off the screen into a playroom (150 sq. feet) through projections on the padded floor.  Alphabot's unique context of human-robot interaction blends the character's own world with our human world. The environment is responsive to human & robot actions. Enlivening the robot character with a back story or world of its own helps ease the player's transition from evaluating the robot to playful engagement. The space supports player-generated content through creation stations (based on the Neverending Drawing Machine) where drawings and physical objects are continuously digitized, scaled and brought into the imaginative play world as equal citizens. The space and supporting infrastructure, also known as Playtime Computing, is an immersive world built for children and robots to create and play together in.  The experience carefully balances premade media with children's on-the-spot submissions.  The work is heavily influenced by the Reggio Emilia approach to early-childhood education and favors tangible interaction with natural materials (e.g. wood, paper, etc) yet leverages the affordances of robotic transmedia in order to place the child, first and foremost, in a position to creatively explore the best of both worlds (physical & digital). 

When Alphabot (the robot) enters the digital world through the hutch, his on-screen, virtual self correctly displays the wooden symbol physically placed on him. This helps the players perceive Alphabot's character as persistent and continuous across spaces.  Players never see Alphabot in two places at once, he is always either 'in the digital world' or physically present. The inter-reality portal and robot hutch, built by collaborator Adam Setapen, hides the physical robot while the virtual character appears on screen. Portal doors open/close automatically.  In early play tests with children, this transition between the real and imaginary or physical and digital worlds seemed to fascinate the child participants and was the focus of their play.

The project received press coverage from the BBC, PBS,  MIT News, NPR, Variety and was featured at the 25th Anniversary of the MIT Media Lab as well as in the artist's MIT advisor's TED talk. 

Watch Dr. Breazeal discussing David Yann Robert's human-robot-interaction art & research (2 minutes 47 seconds):

The use of iconic, wooden symbols engages the player in tactile, hands-on interactions with the robot.  Symbols, rather than a speech-detection robot interface (prone to failing at recognizing younger voices) were chosen as a means to overcome linguistic and cultural boundaries. To evaluate the effects of this new type of robotic (trans)media, HRI research was conducted in the form of play-tests and pre/post interviews with ~40 children and published in 2011 (140 pages) and summarized in 2012 (10 pages).

Alphabot's environment was created with Natalie Freed, Adam Setapen, Ryan Wistort, Marc Strauss and Fardad Faridi with Freed and Setapen as core technical and creative collaborators.  Wistort generously provided robot character design mentorship and Derivative kindly supported the development of this work's game world and procedural, robot animation pipeline.

Listen to Robohub's Robot podcast #78 with Freed, Setapen and Robert.
Read: When the playroom is the computer

Read: Lift conference interview with David Yann Robert