Nikhil Venkatesh   Product Designer

SIM: The Social Robot

Designing for affective Human-Robot Interaction

Growing up watching movies and cartoons, our idea of the term robot is very different from the robots that exist in the world today. The last half-century has introduced robots that are purpose-built. They are built to do one thing and do it really well. They're hard to operate, and are usually in an industrial setting operated by trained professionals.

But we have seen visions of a different kind of robot. Robots like R2-D2, BayMax, and Wall-E - ones that have such incredible personality, and are so full of "life" that we start forming emotional bonds with them.

As this vision of a robot companion comes closer to becoming a reality with companion robots like Jibo and Kuri, we thought it was important to re-examine our interactions with these robots and understand how we can design more natural and intuitive interaction paradigms.

This was our Capstone project at the University of Washington's Human Centered Design & Engineering Masters program. I was the primary designer on the team, working with two engineers and a project manager/designer.

Type Academic Capstone Project

Role Designer, Prototyper

Duration 6 months (Sep 2016 - March 2017)

Responsibilities UX design, Prototyping, Character design, Visual design, Motion design, Supporting UX research, Supporting engineer.

Awards & Recognition

International Conference for Social Robotics 2017
SIM has been accepted into the International Conference on Social Robotics 2017. Poster to be presented and abstract to be published.
UW Maker Summit 2017
SIM won the 'Gizmos' category at the 2017 UW Maker Summit.

The Process Video


The idea of social robots isn't new. We were inspired by 'Project EMAR', a robotics project run by professors at the University of Washington to create a robot that can collect survey data in context from users. The idea of robots integrating into society was fascinating, but the biggest obstacle we noticed was that people who were exposed to with EMAR had preset expectations of how to interact with it - likely because of its humanoid form.

Other studies in Human-Robot interaction also suggest that accounting for simple social aspects in the design of robots improves our interactions with them. Robots that are capable of displaying social cues and nonverbal behaviors during collaborative tasks attribute to improved task performance, higher recall accuracy, error prevention and faster task-completion times.

It was clear from our research that people had social expectations from interactive robots. If robots are to become a part of our everyday lives, it isn't enough if they help us physically. They need to provide mental and emotional assistance as well. This thought helped us derive our research question...

Our inspiration for SIM
Our inspiration for SIM - existing home companion robots, Project EMAR, pop-culture robots

How might we design natural and intuitive interaction between humans and robots?

SIM: The Social Robot

We had done the groundwork, were super inspired, and had our research question and hypotheses - but we needed a way to test them. We built SIM - our prototype of a socially intelligent robot. SIM can engage in affective interchanges with people by understanding and expressing emotions. It's behavior is governed by what we call the Social Interaction Model.

Built on theories of human emotion from psychology, behavioral sciences and human-robot interaction, the SIM table is essentially a map of situations, emotions, behaviors, and functions. The SIM table defines how SIM would react to an emotional stimulus in a given situation, and how that emotional response would affect the dynamics of that interaction.

The SIM table

Designing the Robot

Design Stages
Design Stages - From Sketch to Prototype

Knowing what emotions SIM needed to express before-hand made it much easier to work out the design and technical details.

For the body, we used three motors - two for the head and one for the torso. This gave us enough flexibility to design expressive movements. We mounted an android powered phone for SIM's head, giving us a blank canvas to design the face on.

For the facial design, we wanted to keep things as simple as possible. I designed SIM's face to be minimal, but super versatile, so SIM's expressions are exaggerated and easily understandable.

After a few rounds of iteration, we had a prototype that we could put in front of people to test our hypotheses.

Does Social Intelligence Make a Difference?

It was time to put SIM to the ultimate test! We designed a study based around building trust with the robot, and tested two different versions of SIM with each user - one with social intelligence and one without. Our goal was to see if people trusted the socially intelligent model more than the other model.

The study had users team up with SIM to make decisions on fairly ambiguous questions, like picking the dominant color in a picture. We repeated this task multiple times, and had SIM agree or disagree with the user on each round. We observed the interactions for trends in the number of times the users would change their answers based on SIM's suggestions, and how this changed over time and between versions.

Usability Testing with SIM
Usability sessions with SIM

Results & Next Steps

We found that people personified the socially intelligent robot, using adjectives like fun, cute, friendly, happy, helpful and thoughtful to describe it. We also found that people trusted the socially intelligent version a little more, and tried to engage in conversation and ask it for reasons behind its suggestions.

The study showed that social intelligence in robots is definitely a step in the right direction. With this prototype and study, we only tested trust. This is only the first step towards building intuitive and natural interactions between humans and robots. Given more time and resources, our goal is to bump up SIM's fidelity, designing a shell and improving the facial expressions. One of the major challenges that we faced as a team exploring this space was that there are no targeted tools for designing and prototyping robotics. We hope to create a platform that will encourage people to explore the social robotics space.

the team behind SIM
The Team

Xactly Incent

Helping the sales force stay informed about their goals