Eric Paulos, the Playful Roboticist
By Mark Frauenfelder, Wed Jun 25 09:30:00 GMT 2003

Paulo's philosophy could be summed up as, "build it and they will play with it."

Eric Paulos is not your typical roboticist. Besides having a cropped hipster haircut and a sartorial penchant for beatnik black, this young researcher from Intel Research is more interested in human behavior than he is in robot behavior. When Intel began courting Paulos (while he was still finishing up his PhD at the University of California Berkeley), he told the company "you've got the wrong guy." He didn't want to build automations with a Centrino chip buzzing inside, or develop applications that drove more processing power. He told Intel that he wanted to study the "non-verbal cues of social interaction."

As it turns out, Intel wanted to study the same thing. Paulos was hired and put to work in the Berkeley Intel Research labs. Several Intel Research labs exist in the US and England, based near universities. With an open-book policy, "anyone can come in a look around," says Paulos.

Cigarette Butts Are Your Friends

Surrounded by a hodgepodge of bizarre-looking prototypes and enough engineering tools to build a satellite from scratch, Paulos is heading up a project called "Digital Patina." What exactly does that mean? First, consider what a non-digital patina means. Whenever human beings occupy or pass through a physical space, the surfaces of objects in that space begin to take on a patina of stickers, graffiti, tagging, scuffs, wads of discarded gum, and other signs of human activity and communication. Paulos says that all of these things are much more than signs of wear and tear. They're actually valuable markers conveying vital information that people subconsciously rely on for operating in their environment. For instance, if you are a smoker, you're likely to light up in a spot where you find a pile of discarded cigarette butts. Sometimes, the physical markers we create are more intentional, like the paper bag placed over a broken parking meter, or the "Re-elect Gore in 2004" sticker on a fire hydrant. "If we took these things away," says Paulos, "you would feel disconnected to your community."

Playing Tag

Paulos wants to add an additional layer of wireless digital information over this existing layer of physical markers. This is what he calls the Digital Patina. One of the first examples of this, he thinks, will be the use of RFID tags to leave messages for other people who visit a public space. RFID tags are tiny electronic components that can transmit a short string of data when a scanner is passed over them. In large quantities, RFID (radio frequency identification) tags cost just a few cents each. Imagine having a pocket full of RFID tags in your pocket. They'd look like little dot-shaped band-aids. If you were in a restaurant and you just ate the best créme brulee in your entire life, you might want to place a tag under the table with a URL to your plug for the dessert, so that other patrons with a wristwatch scanner could heed your recommendation.

Paulos isn't so concerned about coming up with a killer app for RFID tags. What Paulos wants to do is develop a digital tagging system and hand out tags to people and see what uses they create for them. His philosophy could be summed up as, "build it and they will play with it."

"People are naturally ludic," says Paulos. "They switch between work and play." When pagers first came out, they were touted as ways for business workers to stay in touch with colleagues. But people quickly came up with unanticipated playful uses for them, such as creating numeric codes to send to their spouses. "123" might mean "I love you," and "345" might mean "pick me up at the train station after work."

Reach Out and Tickle Someone

Paulos plans on recruiting teenagers to be his creative cohorts in the Digital Patina project. "A teen's job description is to get up every day and build their social network," he says, making them the perfect candidates. Teenagers' powerful urge to communicate with their peers drive them to new heights of ingenuity when it comes to finding new uses for mobile devices. "There's always a corporate angle to a new technology," says Paulos, but a teenager will take it and say "I want to use it to tickle someone across the room."

And no wonder. Touch is one of the most information-rich modes of human communication, but aside from the vibrate mode, most mobile communication doesn't take advantage of the sense of touch. In group settings, people touch each other to maintain awareness of each other and to send non-disruptive messages in public spaces. For example, one kid will nudge another when a girl he has a crush on walks into a movie theatre. Teens are especially interested in using technology to maintain this level of non-verbal, low-level communication, even when they aren't located in the same physical location. Paulos says eighty-five percent of the teenagers he talks to say that they call friends on their mobile phones simply to let them know that they are thinking of them.

The Refrigerated Wristwatch

One of the prototypes on Paulos' workbench is a bulky device in the shape of a wristwatch. It's loaded with sensors that detect pressure, light, temperature, and heart beat. It has tiny vibrating, heating, and cooling elements in it, and can pulse with a soft light. The idea is to allow people to communicate in non-verbal ways from across the room. You could tap on your watch and your friend, sitting across the room, would feel the tap on his watch. There are plenty of obvious uses for such a device, but Paulos would rather give it away and let the users come up with them.

Paulos is aware that some people will misinterpret the digital patina as a substitute for human-to-human interaction. But he sees it as a way to augment human contact. "These are tools to support the relationships you already have."

Mark Frauenfelder is a writer and illustrator from Los Angeles.