Generic Robotics: in touch with the future

Oct 30, 2020

As part of the Industrial Strategy Challenge Fund, the Audience of the Future programme, delivered via Innovate UK (part of UKRI), has enabled the development of a number of innovative and ground-breaking projects across the creative industries. This article is one in a series, written to highlight the exciting developments and achievements the funding has led to.

Generic Robotics: in touch with the future

Technology company Generic Robotics is part of an Audience of the Future-funded team helping to accelerate the use of touch-based – or haptic – tools in the creative industries. Its chief executive, Alistair Barrow spoke to us about bringing what he calls ‘the forgotten sense’ into the digital world.

What’s the big idea?

The Haptic Authoring Pipeline for Production of Immersive Experiences – or HAPPIE – project is a group of organisations looking at ways in which haptic technology can be used to create new digital content.

Because the haptic technology market is so young it is very fragmented, with different developers creating different haptic hardware, which causes compatibility issues for creative businesses. Think smartphone apps that are available on both Apple and Android platforms.

Generic Robotics is working with its HAPPIE partners to develop creative authoring tools (middleware). This sits between haptic hardware, for example, gloves, and content creators to create a single point of entry for development of content without the need for specialist programming skills.

What is Generic Robotics relationship with the Audience of the Future programme?

Generic Robotics was aware of Audience of the Future, having won funding from Innovate UK for two other projects in technology and health. The whole HAPPIE project budget is £1 million which includes £375,000 received from Audience of the Future. Without the Audience of the Future funding, it’s unlikely that universities would explore the use of haptic technology in this way simply because of lack of funds.

Who are the project partners?

Partnering on the work with Generic Robotics is Numerion Software, an advanced physics engine company, alongside other partners including, Open University, London College of Music/University of West London, creative studio Sliced Bread and London’s Science Museum.

What stage is the project at?

The project is at different stages with different partners. With the Open University, the Generic Robotics team is exploring the use of haptic technology as a learning tool for visually impaired students. Generic Robotics has developed a proof of concept that allows users to ‘experience’ the feel of line sketching using a ‘forced feedback’ device originally designed for gamers. The tool has been shared with visually impaired and design students for use in their own home – a COVID19 adaptation that, in fact, better replicates the experience of distance learning. Preliminary results show participants reacting positively to the use of the haptic device and interface prototype. Participants have reported a good perception of being able to draw and trace lines and being able to draw lines to a set picture or pattern. Early work has also started on incorporating a pen that recreates the textural feel of making art with different types of paper and tools.

A tool in development with London College of Music/University of West London was delayed by the COVID19 pandemic. Nevertheless, Generic Robotics has helped develop a proof of concept multi-axis controller that allows the user to receive real-time force feedback as they control different parameters during music production. The proof of concept will be tested later in 2020.

Working with Sliced Bread, a US-based creative studio, the HAPPIE team is exploring the use of haptic gloves in its marketing and advertising work with Generic Robotics developing the middleware through late 2020.

At the Science Museum, discussions delayed due to the pandemic have now resumed with the aim of incorporating haptic application demonstrations in London-based museum Wonderlab.

What lessons have been learned so far?

The main lesson is understanding the line between what the software offers versus what a user should do themselves. The aim is to create technology that is useful across different sectors, so it’s important to ensure that the middleware addresses general needs, rather than tailored to one specific industry.

How else has the COVID19 pandemic affected the project?

While the pandemic has delayed certain aspects of the HAPPIE project it has also transformed the conversation. Many more people are now trying to work out how to do things digitally that would once have been done face to face. Due to the delays, the project is applying for a three-month extension, which would see it continue until the end of the second quarter of 2021.

What are the key milestones for the next 12 months?

Generic Robotics wants to reach a point where every HAPPIE partner has a proof of concept that it can test with its user group. It also intends to complete development work on the texture pen so that Open University can test that with students, too. The company also plans to rewrite its software so it’s robust, reliable and commercially ready for deployment.

How is success being measured?

The main driver for success for Generic Robotics is the speed with which its partners can move forward. It measures its success by how much progress the partners are making in terms of testing tools.

What is the business model?

Generic Robotics’ long-term goal is to create commercially-ready middleware. The next phase for business development will be to secure follow-on investment. To do that, the business needs enough evidence to demonstrate that its tools are useful and that people are confident using them. The next six to nine months will be crucial as the HAPPIE team gathers that evidence.

Is there future funding in the pipeline?

The company has its own investment coming in, some of which will go towards software development. It also plans to put in a bigger application with its current – and new partners – to continue developing its work.

Alistair Barrow, Chief Executive, Generic Robotics

Alastair Barrow has over 10 years’ experience in the fields of haptics, robotics and simulation. Between 2004-2010 he worked as a research associate on simulation projects at the Universities of Reading and King’s College London alongside obtaining a PhD in Cybernetics from the University of Reading. During this time, he developed the technology behind the hapTEL project, a virtual learning platform that used haptics to train clinical skills in dentistry. This became the forerunner to one of Generic Robotics’ key products, SimuTouch.