Teaching Robots Not To Stare

Advice columns frequently repeat the mantra of making eye contact — how it enables you to exude an aura of self-confidence and sincerity. But, the truth is, too much eye contact freaks people out. And robots are the worst offenders.

An article in IEEE Spectrum describes the work of Sean Andrist, who is studying human-robot interaction at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Andrist says that, during conversation, we don't look at one another all the time. In fact, speakers only look directly at the other person about 40% of the time when talking:

Psychology literature gives at least three reasons why we avert our gaze, noted Andrist….First, we might look away to show that we're thinking, usually by looking upwards. Secondly, humans display something called intimacy regulation—we look to the side to avoid the negative connotations that come with staring at someone. Finally, there's floor management. We "hold the floor" by looking away during a pause in our speech. In other words, we look away when we want to keep talking but need to take a breath.

Using statistics he gathered from gaze aversion behavior between pairs of conversing people, Andrist created an automatic gaze-shifting program for a NAO robot, which used a Kinect to track the faces on the humans it spoke with. The results speak for themselves: