Dirk, a Life-Like Homeless Robot, Is an Interesting Social Experiment

Robotics Technology
Dirk, a Life-Like Homeless Robot, Is an Interesting Social Experiment
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There were lots of big and amazing things at Maker Faire Nantes. Huge things that would catch your attention from across a crowd. Dirk, however, didn’t command that kind of attention. He slipped right into the crowd, which was interesting because Dirk is a robot.

Dirk ambles along with his cart, begging for money and, upon receiving some, playing some music. Though he is robotic his motion is incredibly lifelike. The nodding head and even the begging hand come off as very natural and most people take a few moments to even realize that this is, in fact, a robot and not a person. This is especially true when he isn’t in the context of a Maker Faire.

The engineering involved to make Dirk seem full of life is impressive. However, the real show is the magic that happens as Dirk interacts with a crowd. Fred Ables, the creator, operates Dirk remotely like a puppet, so Dirk’s movements are truly interactive with people nearby. However, Fred disappears into the crowd, feigning ignorance as though he was drawn, just like everyone else, to this interesting sight.

DSC01515 (Large) Dirk

Fred explained that there are 3 very distinct stages to people sighting Dirk.

First, they think it is a real person. 

People will avoid him, or step around him as though he’s a person. At first glance, he really does seem to be alive and, sadly, most people ignore the homeless.

Then, they realize it is a robot

After a few moments, people start to realize that Dirk isn’t a person at all, but a mechanical thing. They start inspecting more closely.

Finally, they realize it is too smart and someone must be operating it

People then realize that he’s too interactive. He’s nodding at the right moments and moving in response to their actions. Someone must be operating him! At this point they begin to look around for the operator. As Fred explains, he used to hide far away and was often spotted fairly quickly. Now he blends into the crowd, his controller cleverly concealed. People will stand with Dirk for fairly extended amounts of time, never figuring out who is actually operating him.

If you want to learn more about Dirk and Fred, check out his site at Electric-Circus.eu


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I get ridiculously excited seeing people make things. I just want to revel in the creativity I see in makers. My favorite thing in the world is sharing a maker's story. email me at caleb (at) make.co or You can find me on tiktok, talking about my animals at TikTok

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