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Innovation Spotlight: Bringing Children's Media off the Screen

05/18/2010 11:00 AM Bartos theater
Cynthia Breazeal, SM '93, SCD '00, Professor, Program in Media Arts and Sciences

Description: Working with motors, sensors, sophisticated algorithms and fuzzy puppets, Cynthia Breazeal may finally realize one of childhood's fondest dreams: imaginary characters that assume a physical reality, and stories that leap from the page into three dimensions.

Virtual play can take a child only so far, suggests Breazeal, who was inspired by master movie puppeteer Stan Winston. They shared a vision of a "living, breathing droid" -- a fabricated creature that could exist off" as well as onscreen. Breazeal has refashioned this idea over the years to meet her evolving goals in artificial intelligence. She pioneered the area of social robotics and human"robot interaction, developing creatures that can actually learn from and work with people. More recently, as a mother of young children, Breazeal has turned her attention to how socially intelligent machines might offer children new forms of expression and better ways to play.

She designed a simple robot for preschoolers to decorate and costume, like a "Mr. Potatohead." Children constructed and participated in a story, finding "the physicality of the character compelling." Robots that make eye contact and recognizable gestures -- who appear to have a life of their own -- allow kids to improvise around stories "in a way that might not have happened if the stories sprang from a single mind." Her Media Lab group has also concocted the "Huggable," a teddy bear"like creature with sensors that allow it to react to human touch. This creature might be used someday by a grandparent, via the Internet, to read a story to a grandchild, or to help a child learn English as a second language.

Breazeal is passionate about energizing "kids sitting on their butts watching shows" to become actors in their own stories. She envisions a "mixed reality" medium, enabled by computer, where surfaces are digitally paintable. A kid"colored, computer"based character could interact with its creator in a pirate story, or a child could "cut and paste a program in one place" and lay it down somewhere else. "It's all about how to get what's in the mind of a child out in the world so others can riff on it and animate it." Breazeal believes that "we don't know what the world's going to look like 5"10 years from now," so kids must be armed not just with solid cognitive skills, but creative, collaborative and tactile abilities. Richer play, enabled by robotics and other digital technology, suggests Breazeal, will help prepare children for this rapidly changing world.

About the Speaker(s): Cynthia Breazeal directs the Media Lab's Personal Robots group. She was previously a postdoctoral associate at MIT's Artificial Intelligence (AI) Lab. Breazeal is particularly interested in developing creature"like technologies that exhibit social commonsense and engage people in familiar human terms. Kismet, her anthropomorphic robotic head, has been featured in international media and is the subject of her book Designing Sociable Robots, published by the MIT Press. She continues to develop anthropomorphic robots as part of her ongoing work of building artificial systems that learn from and interact with people in an intelligent, life"like, and sociable manner.

Breazeal earned Sc.D. and M.S. degrees at MIT in electrical engineering and computer science, and a B.S. in electrical and computer engineering from the University of California, Santa Barbara.

Host(s): School of Humanities, Arts & Social Sciences, The MIT Education Arcade

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MIT World — special events and lectures

MIT World — special events and lectures

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