The Project

A popularity contest in the robotic petting zoo

This project is a collaboration between Merel Bekking, a designer and artist, and Professor Emily S. Cross and Dr. Ruud Hortensius, researchers from the Social Brain in Action lab at the University of Glasgow.

In this interactive public art performance, a small group of iRobot Rooma vacuuming cleaning robots compete in a popularity contest. All of the robots have unique characters specifically developed for this project in collaboration with local community actors. Just like in human life these robots have distinct characters. Some of them are cheerful, others grumpy and another will apologize constantly when bumping into obstacles.

Visitors of the petting zoo can interact with these robots. By feeding their favourite robot with our special robot food, they let us know which one of our petting zoo inhabitants they like best. During the day, the bins of the robots are emptied out in a display, demonstrating which robot has been fed the most, thus is the most popular, and which robot has collected the least food and is the least popular. By feeding the robots, following their lives and personalities, and rooting for them to win the contest, visitors can interact with the petting zoo robots and shape who wins the popularity contest, and thus reveal more about the social relationships humans might forge with artificial agents. 

Translating research to design

This project is funded by an ESRC Impact Acceleration Award Creative Practitioner-in-Residence programme. During her residency in the SoBA lab, Merel worked together with Emily, Ruud, programmer Bishakha Chaudhury and other members of the Social Robots project to create the robotic petting zoo. The goal of this ESRC IAA programme is to develop projects that enrich the local community and communicate research through a collaboration between Bangor researchers and external artists.

A recurring theme in Merel’s work is the transition from likeable to repulsive, and the influence of design on these transitions. This project allowed her to use her research-based and material-based design techniques to explore and participate in the current debate around human-robot interactions and discover how character design influences our relationships with robots.


For the researchers in the Social Brain in Action lab and the Social Robots project, this project not only translates the team’s recent work on how people perceive and interact with robots to the public, it also explores how robots can be part of a community. It informs ongoing research on the importance of character design and discusses real societal consequences.