Book Cover

Carl DiSalvo Interview
Designing for Robots


Briefly describe for me the realm of robots. What kind of robots are being designed?

We can make some distinctions among robots, but none of them are mutually exclusive. A robot could, and often does fall into two or more of categories. For example, there are social robots, service robots, and field robots. Many of these distinctions actually relate to the research question at hand more so than to a kind of consumer product. This of course reflects the fact that outside of a few domains and a few choice examples, robots still are primarily research endeavors.

The most common domains for contemporary robotic products are military or industrial settings. Robots are also beginning to be used in medicine and scientific exploration. And of course toys. Robots for the home consumer, such as the Roomba, are still uncommon. For example, there are a handful of vaccuum and lawn-mowing robots, but other than that, except for toys, there aren't really robots, as we commonly think of them, in the home.

One of the challenging aspects of robotics is that the distinctions between kinds of robots are made along many different dimensions, so it is difficult to create coherent groupings of robots that are useful to design. As we move forward in the design of robots one of the pressing challenged will be to develop categories of kinds of robots that reflect their status as "products."

What type of design work is being done with robots now?

All kinds. This is what makes robotics so exciting. The challenges and opportunities of robotics sweep across every field of design. Perhaps the most obvious is the work in industrial design in creating the visual form of the robot. The industrial design of a robot is an example of styling visual form with significant impact on interaction. In fact, its difficult to separate industrial design from interaction design in robots. Because of the newness of robotics and the public's unfamiliarity with robots, the visual form of the robot often takes a precedence in shaping our expectations of the robot and how we interact with the product.

In addition to designing the visual form of the robot there is a lot of interface design involved with robots: interfaces for tele-operation as well as interfaces for direct interaction. These interfaces might be screen based, physical, voice, or some combination of the three. Because we have yet to arrive at any standards for, or even common experiences of, interacting with a robot (let alone what a robot is) interface, and more broadly, interaction design for robotics is open to broad inquiry and invention.

How is designing for robots different than other products?

Robots are hyperboles of the products contemporary designers are challenged with. That is, they are an exaggeration of the contemporary products because robots are "everything all at once": complex embodied technological artifacts that require significant design knowledge of industrial, communication, interaction, and service design, potent cultural icons, and too, the most mundane of gadgets.

So designing robots is different from designing other products because all of the diverse elements of a product are brought together and amplified in a robot. This presents a nearly unique challenge and opportunity. Designing robots requires a level of synthesis not often encountered in other products. Of course, this will changes as both the technologies and their applications become more commonplace, and consequently methods and techniques for designing robots are developed.

Robots are also different from many other products because there is this paradox of few real examples of prior or existing robots to inform design, but there is a rich and complex set of popular and scientific imaginaries that set expectation for what a robot is or should be. This dually requires of a designer skills of radical creativity and a heightened awareness of sensitivity to cultural histories and mores.


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Carl DiSalvo is currently a post-doctoral fellow with a joint appointments in the Center for the Arts in Society and the Studio for Creative Inquiry at Carnegie Mellon University. Previously, Carl worked as a designer for MetaDesign and as a consultant for the Walker Art Center’s New Media Initiatives. In 2006, he received a Ph.D. in Design from Carnegie Mellon University. As a graduate student, he worked as a design research associate on the Project on People and Robots at the Human-Computer Interaction Institute.


Table of Contents

Read an excerpt "The Elements of Interaction Design" in UXmatters

Marc Rettig interview excerpt on Interaction Design's History and Future

Hugh Dubberly interview excerpt on Systems Design

Larry Tesler interview excerpt on The Laws of Interaction Design

Brenda Laurel interview excerpt on Design Research

Robert Reimann interview excerpt on Personas

Luke Wroblewski interview excerpt on Visual Interaction Design

Shelley Evenson interview excerpt on Service Design

Adam Greenfield interview excerpt on Everyware