Library putting new twist on communicating with patrons

contact: Samantha K. Macy and Jeanne Baron
| WMU News
Photo of a student looking at the robot in Waldo Library.

A student interacts with Waldo Library's telepresence robot.

KALAMAZOO, Mich.—A telepresence robot is interacting with patrons of Western Michigan University's Waldo Library.

The robot figuratively joined the library staff Nov. 4 and is being tested for its potential use as a communication method for both patrons and librarians. It is in use throughout the Research and Instruction Services area from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. Mondays, Tuesdays and Wednesdays through the end of the fall semester.

In addition, Waldo Library patrons have the opportunity to test drive the robot through Sunday, Nov. 29, by visiting the IT Services desk on the first floor from 1 to 3 p.m. Saturdays and 4 to 6 p.m. Sundays.

The telepresence robot project is a collaboration between University Libraries and the Communication and Social Robotics Lab, or CSRL, in WMU's College of Arts and Sciences. During the course of the project, library staff will investigate how telepresence robots might be used to enhance their services while CSRL researchers will study interactions with the robot.

"Telepresence robots are beginning to show up in organizational and educational settings. These robots can help facilitate social interaction when there is physical distance between people," said Dr. Autumn Edwards, an associate professor of communication who leads CSRL. "Libraries are large, intricate and sometimes intimidating spaces in which having easy access to assistance may really benefit users. We'll be watching how our 'roaming librarians' and users of the library are able to navigate their interactions with one another."

How the robot is used

Photo of a student pointing at the robot in Waldo Library.

Students report enjoying engagement with the robot.

Librarian Pat Vander Meer and other Waldo Library staff are using a video-capable computer to drive the robot around the library and send their image and voice to the robot's screen, similar to a video call. Patrons speak through the robot, sending their image and voice to the librarians.

"The collaboration between University Libraries and the CSRL will allow us to learn more about telepresence robot technology and its potential use for library services," Vander Meer said. "We'll be trying different scenarios for using the robot. For example, the robot may assist in making the 'on-call' librarian more visible throughout the library."

May Chang, associate dean of University Libraries for information technology, noted that communication is instantaneous. Librarians are able to quickly answer patron's questions or make arrangements to get together to provide more detailed research help.

"We're exploring the potential for human-robot interactions and seeing how library users react and engage with it. This is part and parcel of learning and discovery in the library," Chang said. "Some students have already reported that they find the robot a fun way to interact and helpful when they have simple questions."

Communication and Social Robotics Labs

The Communication and Social Robotics Labs were founded in 2013 at WMU and the University of Kentucky through a research partnership. Both labs research human-robot interactions and interpersonal communication mediated by telepresence robots.

They are a collaborative effort between Drs. Autumn Edwards and Chad Edwards, both associate professors of communication at WMU, and Dr. Patric Spence, an associate professor in the Instructional Communication Division of the University of Kentucky.

Through the WMU lab, students conduct and analyze robot-human interaction, as well as continue their overall communication studies.

For more information about the lab, visit wmich.edu/arts-sciences/robotics-lab.

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