When COVID shut down most in-person events, experiential agencies found themselves in uncharted territory. With much of their work on hold, Portland’s DGTL decided to flex their creative muscle and produce a series of shorts to help make a little sense of the madness.
We spoke with Pamela O’Kane, DGTL’s Managing Director, about robotic magic behind Stan’s New Normal.
Portland Ad Fed: Tell me about DGTL.
Pamela O’Kane: We partner with brands and agencies to bring the creative vision and tech elements of a project together. Starting with the goals for the brand message and consumer experience and then incorporating technologies that would best communicate those goals. At our heart, we are a team of people with diverse skill sets working together to bring to life some pretty incredible projects; creating responsive and dynamic environments in physical spaces.
PAF: Were robots a pretty big part of your life before this project?
PO: For me personally, before “Stan,” no, robots were not a big part of my life. I was aware of some really interesting creative projects where robots were being used (which is part of the reason we brought Stan into our lives) but I had not directly worked with one. Of course now, robots are a much bigger big part of my life. Stan is one of our office mates and sits just one office over from me. Working with Stan, I see how engaging and fun robots can be. One of our first tests when we got him was using a Kinect to allow control of Stan through gesture. I remember the moment I moved my arm and saw the robot do the same, it was pretty incredible. I felt like the robot was an extension of my body. That was my very first feeling of connection I’ve ever had to a robot.
PAF: Haven’t you heard that robots are terrifying and taking jobs? Why would you try to humanize them?
PO: Oh yes, I grew up with Terminator and Blade Runner movies, there is a reason “robot uprising” is such a popular theme. They can be terrifying, especially if you think of them taking over or replacing us. Personally, the Boston Dynamics 4 legged robots are absolutely terrifying to me, even with their name being “Spot”.
I think the best use of robots is in the assistance of humans, a collaboration vs replacement. It is amazing what can be achieved combining human and robotic talents, leveraging the robot’s ability for precision and repeatability and the human’s creativity and versatility. That was very much why we brought Stan, our Collaborative Robot or “cobot”, to the team. By humanizing a cobot we are emphasizing their potential to enhance human ability and well being.
PAF: Tell us about Stan.
PO: Stan comes from Universal Robots and he is a UR5 model collaborative robot — “collaborative” meaning he is made to work alongside humans (i.e. without safety guards between the robot and the operator). These robots were originally designed for optimizing low-weight collaborative processes in industrial settings such as picking and placing, but they have potential for so much more. In recent years, they have been used in more creative ways in the experiential world to help fans engages with products they love.
PAF: What was the inspiration for Stan’s New Normal?
PO: When COVID hit back in March we had already been working on a lot of internal development with our UR5 cobot. The inspiration came when we realized that our cobot could be a metaphor for the isolation we were all experiencing in the midst of the pandemic. The project brought us all some much needed humor and fit in perfectly with what we had already been exploring. We wanted to show how this cobot, which is really just a metal arm with a gripper, could be programmed to be personable, emotive, and empathetic.
PAF: Were there any technical or creative challenges during productions?
PO: Yes, working through the technical challenges was one thing, but creating this in the midst of a pandemic was an even bigger challenge. Figuring out how to produce these videos while maintaining appropriate social distancing (which guidelines were constantly evolving at that time). It was very difficult to get access to the locations we needed, parks were shut down and bars closed so we had to get creative. We were able to solve most of our challenges internally by building sets in our shop and even filmed some outdoor scenes in our backyard. The one scene we couldn’t reasonably fake was a tennis court, we were incredibly lucky to gain access to a court the very first day it reopened and it was completely empty.
PAF: What did you learn about cobots during this project?
PO: The biggest take away for me was the creative potential. It was a real eye opener when we moved past just technical tests and started putting together the first scene of the Stan the Cobot “Pass the Butter” short. I remember when we did the first full scene run through. In that moment, the cobot went from a cold mechanical arm to “Stan”. I felt a much stronger connection and more empathy than I was expecting. It’s funny how our perspective on something can be so quickly and dramatically changed with a few human-like gestures. It’s very powerful.
PAF: What’s next for Stan?
PO: Stan is working on his Covid testing technique and looking forward to welcoming his coworkers back, it has been pretty lonely for him at the office.
Our hope is that Stan can act as an ambassador for cobots in creative technology. When people in our industry watch Stan’s New Normal, we hope they see how this technology can be a real game changer in the interactive space.
PAF: Do you have any advice for creative technologists who are interested in integrating robots into their work?
PO: Experiment, play, learn. There can be unexpected findings that can lead you down new exciting paths through the process, “happy” accidents we call them. Also make sure to get a lot of first-hand experience on what works and what doesn’t.