This thesis, Sartorial Robotics, is more a collection of research and demonstration projects focused on merging fashion theory and robotics than any one single project or technology. It begins with anecdotal evidence of clothing and robotics mixing, highlighting people’s desire to use clothing in order to play with identity, both their own and those of robots. The definition of Sartorial Robotics is the development of robotic systems that facilitate interaction and play as well as mimic the materiality, aesthetics and construction techniques of textiles, apparel and fashion. This will enhance the social aspects of human-robotic interaction and assist in how we situate robotics in our lives and cultures. The beginning of Chapter 2 starts with examining the aesthetics of robotics by tracing the historical aesthetics of robots beginning with Karel Čapek’s 1921 theatrical work R.U.R. and on through modern times, with a particular focus on surface treatments. The second part of Chapter 2 presents related work in electronic-textiles and soft-architecture robotics which exhibit a shift in morphology from rigid aesthetics to soft materials. These new soft and flexible materials can be more easily integrated in robotic systems. The motivation is a combination of utilizing robotic surfaces as a means to play with identity. Chapter 3, Wearables for Robots, presents prior work of the author which introduces the crossover of robotics into soft materials. This crossover is put into practice by demonstrating the process of transitioning a wearable computing project utilizing electronic-textiles into a robot application, which is a sensor suit for social touch gesture fitted to a humanoid robot. This project acted as the impetus for Sartorial Robotics. In Chapter 4, Evaluation of Sartorial Cues, a study of sartorial cues exhibited by robots is developed and conducted. Sartorial cues are established as an aesthetic treatment which can profoundly influence our perceptions of robots. In Chapter 5, Design Framework, through a design analysis and study of fashion theory, a list of design principles for Sartorial Robotics is developed. Chapter 6, Group Identity Surface, is a research project specifically developed using the Sartorial Robotics design principles. It is a robotic surface which detects sartorial cues, exhibits its own sartorial cues and utilizes fashion theory based behaviors to facilitate group identity. Chapter 7 explains the development of Zipperbot, a robot designed for concealing and revealing clothing layers. The chapter then explores, through the analysis of a conversational study, autonomous sartorial gestures when the robot interacts with people. Chapter 8 builds on the work of this thesis to present directions toward future research into the area of Sartorial Robotics. The dissertation concludes with a summary of contributions within a variety of interdisciplinary fields that establish Sartorial Robotics as a fertile area for future research.
Background and Related Work
Toward Development of Surface Aesthetics in Robotics
In this section we will explore the robot aesthetic as an embodiment of technology taking on the human form, and how this association influences our concept of the robot. Beginning with the early 20th century, we’ll examine the initial incarnations of robots from theater and consumer culture, and attempt to trace those beginnings to current trends in the design and aesthetics of robotics. The aesthetics of the humanoid robot body is a re-imaging of the human body and so will be prone to its many body, social, political and cultural contexts. As part of these aesthetic ideas we will examine the treatment of surfaces, more specifically robotic skin, and the resulting metaphor and consequences.
Čapek’s Robots: Soft-Architecture Biological Machines
In Karel Čapek’s 1921 play R.U.R., Rossum’s Universal Robots, where the term robot first originated, the robots are in fact constructed of biological-like materials and components rather than machine-like materials. He describes a factory mixing dough for bodies and skin as well as spinning mills where nerve fibers and veins are made, apparently in the same manner as one would spin cotton fiber into a yarn or thread. Dialogue from the play’s two central characters Helena and Domin illustrates this:
Helena: What mixers?
Domin: For mixing the dough. Each one of them can mix the material for a thousand robots at a time. Then there are the vats of liver and brain and so on. The bone factory. Then I’ll show you the spinning mill.
Helena: What spinning-mill?
Domin: Where we make the nerve fibers and the veins. And the intestine mill, where kilometers of tubing run through at a time. Then there is the assembly room where all these things are out together, it’s just like making a car really. Each worker contributes just his own part of the production which automatically goes on to the next worker, then to the third and on and on. It’s all fascinating to watch. After that they go to the drying room and into storage where the newly made robots work.
Čapek’s robots are conceptualized in soft materials, and were to look and be dressed as humans. They were not machines constructed of metal with nuts and bolts, which was not Čapek’s vision. They were to be indistinguishable from humans, mimicking our own materiality of flesh and clothing with their actions and emotionless expressions representing their automated production origins. Čapek was deliberate in this aesthetic design of his robots in order to cast them as a metaphor for the social and political turbulence associated with mass production and automation which in this cautionary tale he wanted to represent as dehumanizing. Marx echoes this representation in Das Kapital as he commented:
To work at a machine, the workman should be taught from childhood, in order that he may learn to adapt his own movements to the uniform and unceasing motion of an automaton.
- Das Kapital: a critique of political economy by Karl Marx
Costuming had a prominent role in this interpretation. Čapek had his brother, Joseph Čapek, an accomplished cubist painter, design costumes for these robot characters which were in the style of overalls or work wear representing both a lack of individual style and referencing the worker apparel that was common with factory workers at the time. As the play’s popularity increased and other productions opened across Europe and the United States, the aesthetic design of the robot characters became more mechanical and machine-like. In the 1923 London production at the St. Martin’s Theater, a costume for the robot characters was fabricated from a shimmering metallic-like fabric that in form and silhouette visually referenced rigid medieval armor. The aesthetic concept of the robot began to shift from a mechanomorphic human to an anthropomorphic machine all through the evolution of surface, Figure 2-1.