Vital Robotics

with people in mind

by Jemma Everyhope-Roser

LIT Room
The LIT ROOM changes to evoke the book being read. The idea is to cultivate literacy in a space that is both physical and digital. The project’s test site is the Richland County Public Library of Columbia, South Carolina. Photo by Craig Mahaffey.


When you go to work in the morning, your car selects the optimal route, accounting for accidents and ambulances, communicating silently with buses and trains, so that everyone reaches the correct destination safely and punctually. At your office, your desk configures itself around you to accommodate the morning’s tasks. You can reprogram it if you like. When you return home, you step into an environment that adapts to your whims, altering its lighting and temperature and form. Your very furniture shifts and physically expands so that you can stretch out and relax in the evening.

In this vision, the biological and computational worlds have merged on every level, the physical world of humanity joined to digital reality, and artificial intelligence is embodied in the hardware around you.

In this strange realm Keith Green dreams and dwells.

Green works in the field of architectural robotics, trying to bridge the digital and the real within a cyber-physical environment. He started out as a psychology undergrad but branched out into architecture. His Ph.D. focused on designing built environments that exhibited qualities of the animate and inanimate. “Under certain conditions,” Green says, “we might ascribe to inanimate things characteristics that are seemingly vital.”

Green wanted the chance to apply what he’d learned in a practical way. And at Clemson, he got it.

About ten years ago, Green realized he worked well with Ian Walker when they were advising a mutual student in Green’s master’s of architecture studio. Green suggested they write a proposal to the National Science Foundation. They were ecstatic when the proposal was approved on the first attempt and immediately went to work on their first joint project: the Animated Work Environment.

“We’re frequently a duo,” Green says. Currently, they share two labs joined by two doors that tend to be open. Following the success of the Animated Work Environment, they’ve gone on to work together on the Assistive Robotic Table and the LIT Room, again with support from the National Science Foundation.

Green and Walker’s projects—the Animated Work Environment, the Assistive Robotic Table, and the LIT Room—have something else in common: They help people help themselves. The Animated Work Environment is a desk-and-wall structure that physically alters its shape to support professional needs. Embedded with infrared sensors and computer screens, the Animated Work Environment can respond to gesture to fine-tune and store a variety of “activity configurations.” Similarly, the Assistive Robotic Table is a hybrid of homey nightstands and over-the-bed hospital tables. Designed to work with people who are aging or who need rehabilitation, the Assistive Robotic Table allows people with changing capabilities to remain in their homes for as long as possible. At public library read-alouds, the LIT Room engages children by providing a programmable environment that gives form to children’s own imagination. When the environment doesn’t hold true to what the child imagines is in the book, the child can reprogram it. Green describes it as “an evocative environment.”

Assistive Robotic Table
The Assistive, Robotic Table is the hybrid of a typical nightstand and the over-the-bed table found in hospital rooms; it features a plug-in robotic surface that supports rehabilitation and can interact with human users.

Image courtesy of Keith Evan Green.

From the ground up

Although a lot of researchers buy a robot to elaborate on, working with a platform that’s already there, Green’s team is unique in that it actually builds artifacts from “nuts, bolts, and whatever else we can find around,” he says.

It can be a struggle, sometimes, to work with a steel fabricator to produce the necessary parts, to get the pieces right so that they fit together. But Green states he’s got a lot of local resources to draw on. The South Carolina Upstate, home to a thriving automotive industry, supports many high-tech companies.

Sometimes the team has to repurpose what’s around. Green says that when they want to buy a linear actuator, which is more or less a rod that pushes up to lift part of the structure, they first must find one that works within what they’ve already envisioned.

Although you might think that the processing power required for complex movement might be an issue, Green states, “The capacity of a computer is not a problem, as digital tools are becoming so powerful and accessible. The real challenge is batteries. What happens if someone needs it and the battery is running out?”

Another challenge involves the movement itself—the object has to shift and turn with a person, so that its movement feels comfortable. Walker specializes in this aspect of design, combining the disciplines of kinematics and motion planning, Green says. “We have to be choreographers to make sure the dance between the users and the environment is clear, apparent, easy, and hopefully inviting.”

So far, Green says, the participants have been intrigued by his projects. The environments assist physical therapists, teachers, and office workers in accomplishing what they’re already doing with greater ease, productivity, and possibilities. “For people who are already kind of geeky and are working collaboratively, the Animated Work Environment is a thrill,” he says. “Kids love the LIT room, and the teachers love its educational applications.” And while hospital staff tend to regard new technologies with caution, Green says, “the staff at Greenville Hospital System are curious and willing to help us” with the Assistive Robotic Table.

“These are platforms for people to collaborate on location, beyond us being networked around the globe,” Green adds, “because so many human activities demand hands-on participation in one site, localized.”

Empowered, not imprisoned

Currently, Green is writing a book with the help of Mark Gross, a colleague at Carnegie Mellon. The manuscript, tentatively called Architectural Robotics, is under contract with MIT Press. In the book, Green tries to establish a typology for his developing field, describing the varieties of architectural robotics at physical scales ranging from smart furnishings to the metropolis.

“We still have a ton of work to do in getting these things up and running in a robust way,” Green says. Green faces another challenge: selecting and locating the sensors and writing the algorithms that would best support people. He adds, “If a person is recovering from a stroke, how can the Assistive Robotic Table determine how little or how much assistance the person requires to enable that person to regain command of her life?”

Although the rise of artificial intelligence and citywide networks may not happen tomorrow, we do have drones flying today. Green says that we should thoroughly investigate the consequences such technologies could bring us. “The adoption of new technology always comes with issues of how we conduct our lives—how we want to live,” he says.

Keith Evan Green
Keith Green (black shirt) and Ian Walker (left) meet with students in the lab. Photo by Craig Mahaffey.

Building robots on a large scale also brings up safety concerns. If someone were to hack into an intelligent transportation network, the potential for disaster could be huge. If a transportation network couldn’t perform during an emergency, then people could be hurt when it failed.

“One of the unique challenges is the safety dimension for moving mass.” Green is talking about the physical mass of the object he’s created. Take the Animated Work Environment: Because it weighs a lot, Green had to mount it in a heavy concrete block and attach a safety cable before he could get approval for people to test it out. “Since these large-scale robotic artifacts could be dangerous, we have to do a lot of testing and evaluation to make sure that these systems not only support human activities in ways we discerned from study, but are also safe.”

Other concerns Green is careful to address involve job security. Green says that when people think about robotics they’re wondering what it will mean for their business a decade or two from now.

“This is inevitable,” Green says. “We are working hard to be sensitive to how this technology might be adopted, and we want it to be very supportive of the way we live our everyday lives. We want it to be pleasing aesthetically, function well, and we want people to be empowered, not imprisoned, by the technology.”

In an increasingly digital society, where we carry the Internet around in our pockets, we still live in a hard-wired and physical world. “We really celebrate the world that we live in,” Green says. “The scale we work in promotes a physical world with digital things in it, as opposed to living a virtual life more exclusively. At least that’s my theory.”


Keith Evan Green is a professor of architecture in the College of Architecture, Arts, and Humanities and a professor of electrical and computer engineering in the College of Engineering and Science. Ian Walker is a professor of electrical and computer engineering in the College of Engineering and Science. Jemma Everyhope-Roser is the editorial assistant at Glimpse.

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