As well as providing entertainment, conversational robots and virtual characters can enhance learning for children, a trio of studies by Disney Research shows.

Exactly how these “autonomous agents” interact with children, however, can depend on a child’s age. For example, pre-school children responding to an on-screen character, may be happiest if the character simply waits for their responses or repeats a question. Older children talking with a robot, on the other hand, appreciate it when the robot references their previous conversations. Younger children are just as happy if the robot treats each conversation as a new encounter.

“Teasing out these nuances is necessary if we are to make the interactions between automated characters and children as engaging as possible,” says Jill Fain Lehman, senior research scientist.

Lehman and other staff members of Disney Research are due to present findings from three studies at the Interaction Design and Children Conference in Palo Alto, California, from June 27 to 30.

“Though parent-child interaction remains the most important factor in child development, the prospect of automated characters that can interact with children offers exciting opportunities for further enhancing learning and play,” adds Markus Gross, vice-president at Disney Research. “The insights that our researchers are gleaning from their experiments will help us create interactive media that children will embrace and cherish.”

What happens when robots makes suggestions

When parents and children engage in storytelling together, research has shown substantial benefits in vocabulary, narrative comprehension and cognitive development. Existing storytelling robots or virtual characters, however, just tell a story and then have the child tell a story. In experiments with 78 children aged 4 to 10, Lehman, together with Boyang ‘Albert’ Li and colleagues investigated what happens if the robot makes suggestions as the child tells a story.

Younger children and boys seemed to have more difficulty with contextual suggestions. This is perhaps because it forced them to think about how someone else perceived the story, the researchers found. Even so, they enjoyed the experience and might learn more from such suggestions in the long run.

Robots never forget?

In another study led by Lehman, researchers looked at how 67 children aged 6 to 10 interacted with a conversational robot named PIPER. The children alternated participation in various activities with other robots and talking with PIPER about each activity.

In one experimental condition, PIPER showed no indication it remembered the previous encounters. In a second, PIPER would make references to previous conversations. In a third condition, the robot had both its own memory of previous interactions and information provided by other observers of the children’s activities, much as one person might hear about an event from a second person concerning a mutual friend.

Younger children most enjoyed conversations in which PIPER didn’t display any memory of previous encounters. Yet, “older children who interacted with the version of PIPER with a persistent memory thought it was the most intelligent of the robots and was their favourite,” observes Lehman.

Read the research

More information about the three Disney Research Studies can be found as below:

Investigating the effects of interactive features for preschool television programming
Collaborative storytelling between robot and child
Persistent memory in repeated child robot conversations

Image: Turtle Talk with Crush at EPCOT. Courtesy Walt Disney World