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NSF Grant Will Support DePauw-Japan Research on Robots' "Cuteness"

NSF Grant Will Support DePauw-Japan Research on Robots' "Cuteness"

July 8, 2019

Acceptance of robotic gadgets in the homes and workplaces of diverse users will be studied in a global collaboration involving DePauw University and Shibaura Institute of Technology (SIT) in Japan.  DePauw has been awarded a National Science Foundation (NSF) grant for $286,761 to collaborate with researchers at SIT on a project entitled "IRES Track One: Involving Undergraduates in Research on Design and Cross-Cultural Perceptions of Cuteness in Robotic Gadgets." (photo: DePauw students interact with Sophia the Robot, who visited campus with her creator, David Hanson, on February 28, 2018)

IRES, which stands for International Research Experiences for Undergraduates, is a program managed by the NSF.   DePauw’s award starts August 1, 2019 (with recruiting and planning efforts) and ends July 31, 2022.

According to Dave Berque, interim vice president for academic affairs at DePauw and a professor of computer science “While robotic gadgets are becoming increasingly common in daily life, it is a challenge to design robots that are accepted by diverse users.”

Hiroko Chiba, professor of Japanese Studies at DePauw, explains, “The collaboration between DePauw and SIT will build upon research related to the Japanese concept of kawaii (Japanese cuteness) in hopes of gaining a deeper understanding of the role that cuteness plays in fostering positive human response to, and acceptance of, robotic gadgets across cultures.” 

DePauw students will collaborate with Berque, Chiba, and students and faculty at SIT to design prototypes of robotic gadgets with varying levels and types of cuteness, and to conduct multi-site, cross-cultural user studies that use stereoscopic 3D video to evaluate people’s reactions to varied designs.

In approving the competitive grant, NSF reviewers described the submission as “a very well thought [out] proposal that will take advantage of the kawaii design culture in Japan to help future robot gadget design. It can potentially generate both significant intellectual merits and broad impact. The site selection is well justified and is very unique."

The NSF grant will provide funding for 12 DePauw students (four per summer in 2020, 2021 and 2022) to spend seven weeks in Japan collaborating with faculty and student researchers at SIT.  Student expenses (travel, lodging, meal allowance, cultural excursions) are covered by the grant and the students will also be paid a stipend.

Before departing for Japan, students will complete cultural and technical preparatory activities led collaboratively by Professors Berque and Chiba with remote contributions from three SIT faculty members. These sessions will include the use of DePauw’s Tenzer Technology Center with support from the Center’s director, Mike Boyles. Using the Center, students will learn about stereoscopic 3D video and other innovative tools.

Once in Japan, each DePauw student will conduct research for seven weeks at Shibaura Institute of Technology under the primary mentorship of the Shibaura faculty members with supplemental remote and on-site mentorship from the DePauw faculty members. In addition to informing inclusive design practices for robotic gadgets, the project will serve as a catalyst for ongoing collaborations between DePauw University and Shibaura Institute of Technology.

Dr. Berque and Dr. Chiba will serve as DePauw’s leaders on the NSF project.  Their work will build on their previous collaborative research about kawaii design as well as on a Winter Term course, "Japanese Culture, Technology and Design," that they have recently taught every other year.  That course has brought about 100 DePauw students to Japan in January 2013, 2015, 2017 and 2019, demonstrating how teaching and student opportunities can be intertwined with faculty scholarship.

Professor Berque has published in the area of human computer interaction and instructional technology and has been awarded several United States Patents, including two for innovative software designs.  The IRES award is Berque's ninth NSF grant since coming to DePauw in 1992. In total, he has received more than a million dollars in government and industrial grants. 

Dr. Chiba has published on a variety of topics including Japanese language learning, Japanese Anime and kawaii design and has worked with students on several technology projects in these areas.  She is a Tenzer Family University Professor in Instructional Technology, a title previously held by Professor Berque.  In 2012 the two professors received a $66,400 grant from the Japan Foundation to support the first offering of their jointly-taught Winter Term.