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Read: Designer Catchup: Healthabitat

Date: July 21, 2015

Author: Dermot McGuire

Read: Designer Catchup: Mari Velonaki

Date: July 21, 2015

Author: Dermot McGuire

With CUSP about to come a close on 15 August at QVMAG, we’ve set out to discover what our 12 designers have been investigating, creating, and experimenting with since CUSP first launched back in 2013.

We caught up with artist, researcher, and Australian Design Honouree Dr. Mari Velonaki to explore the latest in social robotics and the future of humans in the workplace…

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It’s been a big couple of years for Associate Professor Mari Velonaki. The artist and researcher in the field of responsive environments and interface design has been busy creating interactive installations that incorporate movement, speech, touch, breath, electrostatic charge, artificial vision and robotics. With both her incredible art practice and amazing research, both in the lab and out in the real world, it seems that with Mari’s help the reality of robots living among us is closer than it’s ever been before.

A notable achievement came late last year when Mari was voted one of the world’s top 25 women to watch in the field of Robotics. The selection make by Robohub, one of the largest online robotics communities, was announced on Ada Lovelace Day – an international celebration of the achievements of women in science, technology, engineering and mathematics.

Accepting the award, Mari said she hopes to raise awareness of social robotics as a research area for women. “Social robotics involves mechatronics, artificial language, the creative arts and social sciences – it is diverse and multidisciplinary. There is more to it than technology.”

Speaking of, here’s a great piece the BBC wrote about Mari and lack of women in the field – it’s estimated they represent no more than about 20 per cent of robotics researchers.

“For many years I was the only woman [at my University of New South Wales lectures]. I didn’t have any female students. It’s great to have men and women. We have different things to offer… [women ask] different questions.”

Do take the time to read the piece – it’s fascinating! And if you’re feeling inspired to get into robotics yourself, check out this short interview NextBot ran with Mari earlier this year to find out what she has to say to aspiring robot makers.

Last year, research conducted by Mari’s Creative Robotics Lab at UNSW found that, when it comes to the presence of robots, Australians are even more comfortable around artificial intelligence than our Japanese counterparts – which is slightly surprising given Japan’s love of all things technology!

In an interview with The New Daily, Mari said that we shouldn’t take this as a sign robots will replace humans in the workplace, but that opportunities to create complimentary relationships will become more prevalent.

“Humanoid (robots) could be found in hospitals, as tour guides or even in artworks.” And while some jobs will be replaced, “these will usually be jobs where there’s a risk factor for humans.”

And in case you’re still slightly nervous about the impending robot invasion (pretty sure iPhones are already reading our minds!), check out this beautiful essay from Angelica Lim detailing some of Mari’s most famous works (including the Diamandini installation at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London in 2012) and what roboticists can learn from art, and what artists can learn from robots. See, it’s not all bad!


Artist and researcher Mari Velonaki creates intellectually and emotionally engaging human-machine interfaces. To date, artificial intelligence (AI) has largely focused on the transfer of human knowledge to machines. Whereas knowledge is understood as information that has been acquired on a given subject, intelligence is more difficult to define. In a general sense, it describes the brain’s ability to reason, learn, plan, deploy abstract reasoning, experience emotions and exercise self-awareness. It is thought to reflect a broader and deeper capability for comprehending one’s surroundings. Velonaki’s poetic human-machine interfaces exist within a broad field of AI research pursuing the creation of truly intelligent non-human objects.

In late 2012 Velonaki embarked upon a collaborative project with leading researchers in the field to investigate intelligence through the creation of interactive wallpaper. This includes Maurice Pagnucco (artificial intelligence), David Silvera Tawil (human-robot interaction), Darren Alvarez (tactile sensing), Francois Ladouceur (materials), and Hugh Durrant-Whyte (robotics and machine learning). The Blue Iris wallpaper will weep, change colour, display (and rearrange) text and drawings in response to human touch, sound, breath and marks made on its surface. It becomes the active skin of a ‘living’ system – an evolving memory bank that collects human-machine communication and data.