Dancing Georgia Tech robots and Kennesaw State dancers meet in new performance

The FOREST project will be displayed in concert on Dec. 11 at 7:30 p.m. at the John and Joyce Caddel Building at 280 Ferst Drive on the Georgia Tech campus. It’s a free, unticketed event that will be viewed from outside the Caddel Building through the floor-to-ceiling glass windows. 

The idea of “dancing robots” may conjure an image of ungainly things lumbering around, but a new collaboration between Georgia Tech and Kennesaw State has elegant robots moving in concert with human dancers.

The dance, called FOREST, is on video, and a different performance involving the robot dancers will be performed live this Saturday at Georgia Tech.

The idea of the project is to build trust between humans and the machines, said Gil Weinberg, director of Georgia Tech’s Center for Music Technology.

It’s not that he doesn’t get the concerns some people may have about robots — worries about bias or unequal access, robots taking jobs from humans or a science fiction-style robot revolution.

“I, too, see the promises and also the risk,” he said.

But they’re increasingly a part of our world. And he’s interested in shifting the perception of robots.

“I want to look at robots as a creative entity, that can be delightful, that can be surprising, that can come up with new ideas that you would not think about, that would lead you to be creative in a whole new way,” he said.

In the past, he’s created a robot musician that can play and improvise along with humans. In this new project, he and his team have developed robots that dance with humans.

The robots look like tall arms sticking up from the ground that move around and with the human dancers.

Georgia Tech Music Technology graduate student Amit Rogel (foreground, right) consults with other FOREST project researchers (L to R) Mohammad Jafari, Michael Verma and Rose Sun. PHOTO BY ALLISON CARTER/GEORGIA TECH

Christina Massad, a professional dancer and member of the nonprofit arts group Fly On A Wall, said the robots surprised her when she first saw them.

“This was totally stepping into something so new for me,” she said.

She said that at first, she approached the robots like props, but as she got used to them that changed.

“When you’re dancing with other dancers, you’re doing your best to make both of you feel important and feel equal,” she said.

She eventually came to feel the same way about the robots and to trust them to perform their parts.

“It shifted to me thinking, ‘Oh, these robots are actually really important. And instead of dancing around them, I’m actually dancing with them,’” she said. “It definitely felt like they were dancing alongside with us.”

Choreographer Ivan Pulinkala said it was also interesting to see the human teams build trust with each other: the dancers from Kennesaw State University, where he’s a dean, and the robotics experts from Georgia Tech.

“What I appreciated most was the opportunity to watch these two worlds literally collide in a really beautiful way,” he said.

The FOREST project will be displayed in concert on Dec. 11 at 7:30 p.m. at the John and Joyce Caddel Building at 280 Ferst Drive on the Georgia Tech campus. It’s a free, unticketed event that will be viewed from outside the Caddel Building through the floor-to-ceiling glass windows.