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Portrait of Sonia Chernova standing in front of a robotic arm mounted to a counter, which is gripping a coffee cup

A research team led by Sonia Chernova, an assistant professor in the School of Interactive Computing, is making it easier for nonspecialists to control robots. Photo: Rob Felt.

By Jason Maderer

The traditional interface for remotely operating robots works just fine for roboticists, who use a computer screen and mouse to independently control six degrees of freedom, turning three virtual rings and adjusting arrows to get the robot into position to grab items or perform a specific task.

But for someone who isn’t an expert, the ring-and-arrow system is cumbersome and error-prone. A new interface designed by Georgia Tech researchers is much simpler and more efficient, and doesn’t require significant training time. The user simply points and clicks on an item, then chooses a grasp. The robot does the rest of the work.

“Instead of a series of rotations, lowering and raising arrows, adjusting the grip, and guessing the correct depth of field, we’ve shortened the process to just two clicks,” said Sonia Chernova, the Catherine M. and James E. Allchin Early-Career Assistant Professor in Georgia Tech’s School of Interactive Computing, who advised the research effort.

Her team tested college students on both systems and found that the point-and-click method resulted in significantly fewer errors, allowing participants to perform tasks more quickly and reliably than using the traditional method.

“Roboticists design machines for specific tasks, then often turn them over to people who know less about how to control them,” said David Kent, the robotics Ph.D. student who led the project. “Most people would have a hard time turning virtual dials if they needed a robot to grab their medicine. But pointing and clicking on the bottle? That’s much easier.”

Presented at the 2017 Conference on Human-Robot Interaction, the research was supported by the National Science Foundation and Office of Naval Research.

Related: Controlling a Robot is Now as Simple as Point and Click, April 24, 2017

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