Affinity to Artefacts: Humans' perception of movement in technological objects

PhD Thesis, Queen Mary University of London, 2018


It is commonly accepted that our relation to inanimate objects is different than to biological entities. When movement comes into play, however, this relation can bring about ambiguities and transfigure familiar relationships between the animate and the world of things. This thesis investigates this relationship and the role of movement. The main focus is on humans' perception of movement, in particular how this affects the relationship to technological objects.

It is a known phenomenon that humans tend to focus on life and life-like processes. This propensity affects the creation as well as the observation of things. As social and emotional beings, humans experience a living presence of objects, and tend to not treat them as dead matter. Apparent for example in emotional attachments to devices like the computer, cell phones or robots. We have a long-standing practice of projecting social roles onto our surrounding as a way to relate and interact with things in the world. Differences in these relationships are affected by the appearance as well as movement of things, a phenomenon that is well-established, for instance, in cognitive psychology and gestalt/animation theory, where it has been demonstrated that abstract objects and shapes, when they move, tend to be interpreted less object-like and more as social and animate beings. Equally, in human-robot interaction, studies with real robots illustrate that people tend to 'anthropomorphise,' and attribute life-like properties to these technological objects with certain human or animal characteristics. The affinity towards the living affects not only the experience and observation but also the creation of technologically animated things. For a long time artists and inventors have been trying to mimic nature and develop technology simulating life-like qualities. These creations, as reported in this thesis, manifest for instance through animated creatures, artistic sculptures and artefacts, the creation of artificial systems, and robotics.

The aim of this thesis is to learn more about the role of movement for human perception of the animate/inanimate by presenting movement as the common denominator on three levels. First, this thesis contributes to the understanding of the phenomena by bringing together work from various contexts and as such presenting an interdisciplinary approach to the topic. Second, as a result, a novel methodology is presented that provides a relational approach to examine movement as a determinant of variances in the interpretation of an entity. Based on a feature-space, used to compare peoples' interpretative relationship to entities, the method allows to evaluate how an entity's movement characteristic affect the way thoughts and actions are directed to them. Third, results are obtained from the application of the methodology in an empirical study, assessing peoples' interpretation of a ready-made object, a technologically modified hairbrush moving autonomously. These show that the movement of an everyday object motivates an interpretation closer to humans and animals.

The results correspond to the findings mentioned above. However, as the empirical work brings together people and an autonomously acting robotic object, which lacks anthropomorphic/zoomorphic or mechanoid morphology, in a real world scenario, it transfers these findings from cognitive psychology and computer graphic animation to the field of human-robot interaction.


Download the thesis following this link [96MB].