Making Robot Steering More Like Call of Duty Could Save Lives

The uPoint MRC steering system from iRobot

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The uPoint MRC steering system from iRobot

To make little tanks more drivable, ditch the tank controls, research shows. By Patrick Tucker

A team from Sweden was able to greatly improve the ability of operators to perform tasks with remotely piloted emergency robots by making the bots steer less like tanks and more like a first-person shooter video game like Call of Duty. It’s a small change that could save lives in an environment where an emergency robot has a limited amount of time to perform a life or death task like finding a survivor in a collapsed building.

Emergency response robots are really just small, remotely controlled tanks so the default steering system, not surprisingly, is what videogame designers often refer to as tank controls. It’s a steering scheme common to video games of the dual analog control system era. The steering system operates just like it sounds. The player has to move the character to face a particular direction before the character can move in that direction. Result, awkward tank-like movement with characters forced to make full circles in order to turn around.

An example from the gaming world includes the much-maligned and mocked  Resident Evil Code Veronica. Reviewer Richard George’s 2011 takedown of the game includes this lengthy critique of tank steering among the game’s primary problems.

“Count the game’s stilted, tank-like controls as the chief offender, as some simple alterations could have gone a long way. Instead poor Claire Redfield must rotate left and right (without moving her legs) before moving forward and backward. It certainly doesn’t help that analog sticks have improved since the Dreamcast days. More sensitive, nuanced input means that movement is almost always exaggerated. As a result, my Claire typically ran through levels like a frantic, drunken hobo. Achieving that level of coordination was virtually a miracle in and of itself.”

Here is blogger Jaminson G. Robinson describing the gameplay Resident Evil 3: Nemesis as “stiff, non-human movement.”

Petter Ögren, an associate professor at the Center for Autonomous Systems (CAS) at Stockholm’s KTH Royal Institute of Technology, set out to test a counter-intuitive theory, that less tank-like controls could improve emergency workers’ ability to steer small, tank-like robots. He designed an alternative “free look” piloting system.

Free look control is common in first-person shooter games. It’s been around since 1992 but it wasn’t until the 1993 release of the blockbuster video game Doom that free look went on to become the defining characteristic of the first-person shooter, which were once actually called Doom clones. (Although, the degrees of freedom exhibited by the main character were very limited compared to free look controls today.) “The idea is to reduce the mental strain on the operator, so they can focus on the environment they are dealing with,” says Orgen.

If you’ve played a first-person shooter like the 1997 hit GoldenEye 007 and, of course, any of the games in the Call of Duty series, you’ve used free look controls.  Compare Nintendo Life video editor Rory Cocker’s description of the gameplay in Call of Duty to that of Robinson’s experience with Resident Evil.

Though free look has been an aspect of video game design for almost twenty years, it wasn’t until very recently that it made its way into robotic piloting. Earlier this month, at the Association of the United States Army convention in Washington, iRobot demonstrated a new robotic steering system called uPoint Multi-Robot Control that exhibited clear free look characteristics. The company told Defense One that the system is not intended to emulate free look video game steering but we tried out the Android-based app and found it had a lot in common with a first-person shooter type game. It was also more responsive, intuitive and easy to learn than the other emergency robot steering schemes on the expo floor. In an increasingly crowded marketplace for robots (including many that are cheaper than what iRobot offers) that steering scheme improvement could be a big advantage.

But is first look demonstrably better for steering robots?

Ögren tested it on a group of fire fighters out of Pisa, Italy. Of the 16 users, 12 preferred the free look control to the tank control. The free look users also performed better. One of the experiment tasks involved finding a certain number of so-called markers in a given space. The operators need lots of degrees of freedom to visually investigate the space and find various markers. Result:

“Using tank control, the average was 4.5 markers per user. Using free look control, they found an average of 6,” Orgen said . In a real world setting, that improved capability could translate to one or two more survivors found before a roof collapse or explosion. Making robot steering schemes more like Call of Duty and less like Resident Evil is more important than improving user experience — it will actually save lives.

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