Soccer and Robotics: Internship Reflections

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By Max Asselmeier, MechSE rising sophomore

As the ever so eventful 2018 World Cup has recently come to a close, soccer has been on my mind a lot for the past month. Soccer has always struck me as a fascinating case study in the world of sports because it represents the global reach that sports have. I started playing soccer when I was very young and continued playing until my senior year of high school. However, even after quitting soccer, there is always a little tug on me that pulls me to go juggle the ball outside or play with my friends, and I think it is a similar force that has enabled soccer to establish itself as the world’s most popular sport, “The Beautiful Game”.

A major idea about soccer that interests me is why you can find it in all walks of life. Young and old, boys and girls, shin guards and cleats and nothing but bare feet. The barrios in Latin America, the elite training academies of Germany, the banlieues of France. Everywhere in the world, soccer is being played, and realistically, no other sport can boast such a dominant international foundation. National Geographic has released a series of photos and videos for the past few World Cups showing soccer being played in all areas of the world, and many lists state that soccer has a following of around three to four billion people -- just about half the world’s population! But why? How has soccer come to capture the entire world, and how, every four years, is it able to draw everyone in and put on the most incredible and astonishing sports competition in the entire world?

There are many aspects of a sport that can factor into its popularity ranging from cost to culture to circumstance. There is no doubt that soccer is inexpensive, and all you need is a ball to play, but a lot of activities and sports don’t take much to be able to be played.I think that what makes soccer so impactful and popular transcends the physical nature of the sport. South Africa kicking off their hosting of the World Cup in 2010 by scoring the first goal; Zinedine Zidane’s infamous headbutt in the 2006 World Cup; and Diego Maradona’s “Hand of God” in the 1986 World Cup. These are not just occurrences in history. They are folk tales, they are the proof behind the pride of “I was watching live when…”, and they are an essential component of the sociocultural phenomenon that is the sport of soccer. To me, soccer is the sport that it is today because of how fantastic it is at capturing the raw essence of humanity, oddly enough, something that has ended up being a major theme of the work that I have been doing this summer at the RAD lab.

A major idea that I have been working around this summer is “quantifying anthropomorphism”, or looking at how we, as living, breathing people, label other objects or entities as “human-like”. What types of bodily configurations or movements lead us to perceive something as “human-like”? This is an important concept in the world of robotics because as important as it is to program and build a robot, it is equally important to understand how the world (of humans) will view the robot.  We want to understand and predict how we will accept these devices into our households, communities, and so on. Moreover, what meaning will a human take from a highly articulated alien robot like the ones I’ve been designing this summer?

Figure 1. A snapshot of a ‘weird-shaped robot’, a preliminary figure for the user study aiming to analyze how people anthropomorphize non-human objects.

A concept that we study in the RAD Lab to better understand how humans perceive motion is the duality between function and expression. At face value, these two ideas are stark contrasts of each other, the old “logical” versus “emotional” debate. However, it is critical to understand that these two concepts work together. Every movement has a both a functional and an expressive aspect to it, and these depend on the unique context that the movement is being performed in and reinforce one another. Ultimately, understanding the functional and expressive facets of the motion of robots will allow us to provide them with motion profiles that fit their individual context to allow human users to feel safer around them.

In soccer, we see this duality as well. While we might focus on the functional aspects of the sport (counting up the amount of equipment needed to play, for example, it’s essential to understanding soccer’s appeal to notice how human and emotive it is. It is as slow as it is fast. It encourages creativity as well as discipline, and it has such an uninhibited flow of play that it allows players to access a more unscripted part of sports. There is so much freedom in the game that the identities of each player shine through in each and every game, and this idea was on full display at this year’s World Cup.

Figure 2. A group of French teammates embrace one another while a Croatian player wipes his face as the final game ends.  Image via CNN.

 One of the breakout performers of this year’s tournament was France’s teenage phenom, Kylian Mbappé. Mbappé exhibits brash, yet impressive, skills on the ball to catch defenders flat-footed, but with his unique physique and long legs, if he has any room to run, he is bound to torch any other player in a race to the ball. One of my favorite moments of Mbappe’s came in France’s game versus Belgium. In the 56thminute of the game, France is on the left side of the field, looking to shift an attack to the inside of the field. A couple passes move the ball to Mbappé as he is turned away from goal to shield the incoming ball from any defenders, but as soon as the ball reaches him, he puts his right foot on top of the ball, rolls it across his body, and pushes off a pass behind his back with his left foot to find another French player and provide them with an excellent opportunity at a goal. The defenders were left dazed, the announcers were reeling from the play, and I’m sure some French players didn’t even know what to think of the move.

Functionally, all a pass does is move the ball from one player to another, but through the lens of expression, there is a lot of room for creativity, and a myriad of options in execution, for just a simple pass. If we look at the Mbappé’s position during the play, he is facing away from the player he will eventually pass to, so this underlying functional aspect of getting the ball to the other player gives life to the expressional side of the pass: confident, flashy. If he wants to pass it to other player, he almost has to find an unconventional way to do it. Furthermore, Mbappé’s bold expressional twist to this pass goes on to gesture towards another function of announcing himself to the world, letting everyone know that he came to play. Function leading to expression leading to function, and so on and so forth. Just a 10 second play can exhibit this very idea of function/expression which greatly helps us break down this complicated motion and look into its humane aspects.

Another great example of how we, as an observer, derive meaning from a movement or action also came from the French national team at this world cup, but this time, there was another culprit. In the round of 16, France came up against Argentina, and after a quick goal from France, Argentina later had two quick scores to find themselves ahead 2-1. However, in the 57th minute, France was on the attack, and as a powerful cross from the left careened over France’s players positioned in the box, it sailed back towards the creeping French defender Benjamin Pavard who had advanced up the field for the play. With the ball bouncing towards him, and an Argentine defender closing him down as well, Pavard only had time for a one-touch strike, and he sliced down and away from the ball, creating a strong curl on the ball as it arced up and around the defenders and goalkeeper, finding itself in the back of the net. A wicked strike, but once again, what defined this moment was what came after: Pavard’s reaction to his goal was nothing short of absolute astonishment and empowerment. Arms out at his sides, fists curled up, Pavard ran straight for his bench and slid into a massive French embrace as the team celebrated their goal. I don’t even think he knew he was capable of that, and his celebration has such a stark contrast from Mbappé’s play: Mbappé was calculated and daring while on the other hand, Pavard is ecstatic about what he’s just done, and it honestly seems like he doesn’t even know what do with himself.

The functional aspects of the Pavard’s movement, without the context, almost communicate frustration and anger: muscles clenched, curling your fists, but his expression, as well as the environment that his movements are occurring within: the celebration of a World Cup goal by the players of the scoring team, allow him to demonstrate the pride and happiness that he truly feels. We don’t even realize how intuitive these feelings are, but these players’ movements, as well as the movement of every person we come into contact with, has an impact on us. Motion definitely has meaning for human observers. We pull emotion, environment, and a myriad of other ideas from movement, whether we are consciously aware of it or not, and we simultaneously use all of these accompanying features to derive meaning from movement, and a recent RAD Lab workshop has helped me understand this idea.

At this workshop, we learned about the Laban/Bartenieff Movement Studies (LBMS) which analyze the movement of the human body. They examine movement through ideas of Body, Effort, Space, and Shape, and upon working with these ideals, it is very apparent to me how complex and unique human motion is. We talked about body organizations which are groupings that underline certain ways in which our bodies move such as Core-Distal (like a starfish or octopus) or Upper-Lower (like a frog or rabbit), and these can be seen everywhere, especially in the players’ movements from before. Mbappé’s move to roll the ball across his body? Cross-Lateral: moving across your body from left to right, or vice-versa. Pavard running with his arms out at his sides? Body-Half with his left and right arms exhibiting the same motion. These ideas are a great resource as we aim to understand movement.

Another key idea that we discussed was how our movement is affected by our environment, and on the contrary, how our environment is affected by our movement. Whether you are in a park or on a crowded city street, your motion is vastly different across certain environments, and there is no doubt that this may be obvious to people: you are not going to walk around on the street with your arms out at your sides in a T-pose, and you wouldn’t tuck your arms in at your sides and put your head down in a sprawling park. Also, if you were to do these sorts of movements, that street or park would not feel the same: you would be shaping your surroundings with your motion. We saw this before when I wrote about how Pavard’s movements, when stripped away from everything surrounding him, seem to evoke feelings of rage or irritation, but as we begin to piece together the entire scene: he just scored his first World Cup goal, he is with his teammates, everyone surrounding him is smiling, we then are able to make sense of his motions.

However, it is important to take these initial observations and further analyze them to look at how certain motions affect others on an internal level. We went through a whirlwind of different concepts through our two days of working with the LBMS system, but this idea of how our movements create certain environments and emotions was what stuck out to me because I believe that it applies to the work that I have just started at the lab. If we want to analyze how people will react to and interact with robotic systems in the future, then we need to understand how people view a robot’s motion. It is important to see if people treat robotic motion the same way that they treat human motion, and from there, there is so much that we can do to examine how certain variants of movement elicit certain responses within people.

One of the activities that we did as part of our workshop involved us splitting into two groups, each group receiving six post-it notes: two detailing movements, two detailing body organizations, and two accompanying sensations or descriptions. With these post-its, our group was to then organize ourselves amongst the room and move in such a way that we were creating the environment that we envisioned when we read the post-it notes. Our group had post-it notes such as the movement of rolling through your spine, Core-Distal body organizations, and the sensation of a warm, yellow light above you. However, the other group had ones such as squatting, upper-lower, and “with efficiency”. At the end of the activity, one group would then act out the movements while the other group observed. As the other group acted their movements out first, it immediately felt that we were within some mechanical system or factory. Rigid, quick motion where they were squatting up and down in a tense, stationary manner, and they had even distributed themselves in a geometric pattern within the room, emulating a clock or assembly line. On the contrary, when our group acted our movements out, many of us were laying on the ground, but some of us were also moving and walking around. We distributed ourselves randomly across the room, and the other group explained that there was a great sense of calming and relaxation throughout the room. Furthermore, when the groups were discussing how they should move and position themselves, our group came to a very quick consensus on what we wanted to do, and we worked to incorporate everyone’s ideas into our environment. For the other group, they explained that they struggled to settle on a definite routine for their post-its, and they also had trouble determining a single definition for their descriptions and movements.

Humans move in incredibly complex ways, and this is why I believe soccer is relevant when we talk about understanding these concepts. Soccer is unpredictable, fluctuating, global, and so many other things. We find humanity in the game, the culture, the players, the movement, and every other part of it, and sports are just one example amongst many of the ways of observing how we both view ourselves as well as others. There is much to be learned from us before we fully understand the effect of robots on our world. When we run our fingers through our hair, give each other high fives, or even bend down to tie our shoes, I think that we take a lot of ourselves – and our capacity for movement -- for granted. We are more complex than any machine we have manufactured, and, I think that this will always remain true. Before we try to understand what we make of robotic systems and motion, we must first take an introspective approach and look at how we view ourselves.