Tweenbots: Cute Beats Smart


If you wanted to build a robot that could go from one end of Washington Square Park to the other without your help how would you do it? How expensive in time and money would it be? Would you build or buy a navigation system? Construct a sensing system to detect obstacles? Or would you decide to take a different tact and use cute as your primary tool?

ITP student Kacie Kinzer created a 10-inch smiling robot called a Tweenbot that can only go straight. For each journey Kacie would give the robot a destination and clearly label it. Given the obstacles in its way and lack of navigation or steering systems the expectation was that the robot would not make it. However the robot’s avoidance of the uncanny valley and clearly written goal helped it out. Humans would redirect the Tweenbot so it successfully reached its destination. Below is a map of one Tweenbot journey:

Mission 1: Get from the Northwest to the Southwest Corner of Washington Square Park / time: 42 minutes / number of people who intervened: 29

tweenbot map

As Kacie describes on the site:

Over the course of the following months, throughout numerous missions, the Tweenbots were successful in rolling from their start point to their far-away destination assisted only by strangers. Every time the robot got caught under a park bench, ground futilely against a curb, or became trapped in a pothole, some passerby would always rescue it and send it toward its goal. Never once was a Tweenbot lost or damaged. Often, people would ignore the instructions to aim the Tweenbot in the “right” direction, if that direction meant sending the robot into a perilous situation. One man turned the robot back in the direction from which it had just come, saying out loud to the Tweenbot, “You can’t go that way, it’s toward the road.”

So why do people help out the tweenbot? Personally I would not be able to resist assisting the anthropomorphized little robot. The smile signals its innocent intentions and the Tweenbot’s label makes it clear how to help. It’s something for designers and technologists to remember; sometimes cute and clever can get the job done much cheaper and in less time than smart and expensive.

There are more Tweenbots coming so if you happen to see any friendly robots around your town lend a hand. Here are some of the prototypes that are currently in development.

new tweenbots

via Hacker News

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  • Hoo boy — I hope they’re not planning on letting these things roam around Boston!

  • Susan

    I think if it can survive in New York City, it will do fine in Boston.

  • Hi, Susan — I was just thinking of the reaction to the lite-brite thingamajigs in Boston. These things could be a terrorist menace for all we know. :-)

  • Vadim

    Of course they couldn’t. Can’t you tell by their looks? :)

  • This is interesting. I think an idea like this works better in large cities like New York because there is an ingrained sense of community.

    It would be interesting to see how this would play out in a suburban county park in the outskirts of an industrial town. My guess is some teenagers would smash the poor little tweenbot within 24 hours (or find a way to turn it into a bong).

  • Hi Brady

    This reminds me of work on the evolutionary advantages (to animals) of appearing cute (to humans). Stephen Jay Gould once touched on that in an essay, I think.

  • Miles

    Babies and women figured this out long ago: Cute will get you where you need to go and get you what you want.

  • Nosredna

    NW to SW? Looks like NE to SW to me.

  • In Los Angeles the Tweenbot would instantly have an agent and a television series, and the researcher would have to fight in court to get custody back.

    It would be interesting to see if additional character traits were added, would this enhance or degrade the outcomes? Would a blonde Tweenbot be given extra attention if it went off the path? Would flags of different countries provoke distinctive responses? Would making it look like a puppy or kitten help or hurt?

    The robot revolution will not be accomplished with war machines… cute little Tweenbots will do the trick.

  • It would be an interesting item to see if the tweenbots survive the Amsterdam “Vondelpark”. The course is nog difficult… the “intervenists” are…

  • Fog Beard

    Custody battle? No way. The designer (who is clearly not an engineer) would get his own show on the Style Channel.

    Regarding war machines, perhaps the Army would get better results if it painted those Predator drones (and other unmanned war machines) in bright colors, and gave them cute faces. “Are you Taliban? If so, please point my barrel towards your chest. I really appreciate your help! :) :) :) :)”

  • Ian Crew

    This sounds very much like a modern-day version of the story told in the children’s book “Paddle-to-the-sea” by Holling C. Holling, which was one of my favorites growing up. Thanks for the nice memories.

  • Michelle

    Here’s an animated short where a ferret hijacks a Tweenbot and rides it to freedom:

  • This is a very interesting article and detailed information–Great Job!!! I also concurred that this would works better in Los Angeles due to the sense of community

  • Rob

    “Please point me toward the White House. I have an appointment.”

  • HammerChick

    “Take me to your leader,” said the adorably cute war machine just before … BOOM!

  • Are you kidding? There’s no way in heck that I would approach one of those things. In fact, I would probably run away or dial 911 in this day and age. I’m not overly paranoid, maybe?