GlowBots: Robots That Evolve Relationships

GlowBots are small wheeled robots that develop complex relationships between each other and with their owners. They develop attractive patterns that are affected both by user interaction and communication between the robots.

Enhanced Life

GlowBots shows that it is possible to develop new and novel products that last considerably longer and have a much more rewarding interaction than robots that are available today. The project is based on an attempt to move beyond the traditional view of robots and find a new basis for designing robot applications. For example:
  • Robots shaped like indoor plants that would subtly guide people at an airport.

  • An amusement park guide that would enhance the overall experience by encouraging visitors' feelings of fear and delight.

  • Robots designed to transfer the special relationship that some people have with unusual pets, such as snakes, lizards, and spiders, to robot designs without transferring the anthropomorphic properties of the pets.
GlowBots demonstrates one practical result of this process and shows how robots can interact with humans in much more subtle, but also more sustainable, ways than the robots we have come to know from science fiction and spectacular industry demonstrations.


The project began with a series of interviews with people who have unusual pets. Interview results were dissected into categories and recombined to form distinct, intrinsic clusters of characteristics. These clusters were used as raw material for four personas, one of which revealed real-world attributes of a man who owns an unusual pet:
  • He does not pet his pets, nor is he interested in the pets' distinct personalities.

  • He is interested in breeding his pets to create nice patterns.

  • He enjoys reading about his pets and often meets up with people who have similar pets, to admire or even exchange pets.
This persona led to creation of GlowBots as "agents" that would be attractive to the persona. The agents can evolve interesting patterns over time, but it is a lengthy process and might not always succeed. Agents are equipped with color displays on their backs and have one or more sensors for light, movement, and sound. Sensing is different for different agents, and each agent has a unique color pattern, developed from meetings with other agents that share its environment. Touching the agents in a particular way temporarily freezes a pattern. Achieving a nice pattern requires several agent-agent interactions and an attention to timing.


GlowBots technology is based on an open experimental robot platform, the e-Puck, developed at l'Ecole Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne. Despite its size, the platform contains an impressive number of components: eight IR proximity sensors, one camera, three microphones, a three-axis accelerometer, a speaker, two stepper motors, a Bluetooth interface, a number of LEDs, a PIC micro controller, and a 12-step-mode selector.

The GlowBots development project focused on creating a system that is inexpensive, visually appealing, and energy-efficient. It expanded the e-Puck's communication capacity and created a small display consisting of 148 light LEDs that can be individually controlled. The display turret consists of two sandwiched PCBs, one controller board that takes higher-level commands from the e-Puck through a serial port, and one matrix board holding the LEDs. The LEDs are quite cheap in large quantities, and they can be pulsed by short bursts of electricity to make them brighter and more energy efficient.


In the current GlowBots system, when users gently pick up or put their hands around the GlowBots, they react immediately and visibly by producing new patterns on the display. The user can affect the new pattern by actuating the various sensors with sound or light. When the GlowBot is reintroduced to its robot colleauges, it starts to mingle with them and share its new pattern. The other robots are affected by it and start to evolve their own patterns and share them with their neighbors in turn. To observers, the effect is like sowing a seed that spreads among the robot population as they move around.


Mattias Jacobsson
Future Applications Lab, Viktoria Institute
Majak (at)


Sara Ljungblad
Johan Bodin
Jeffrey Knurek
Future Applications Lab, Viktoria Institute

Lars Erik Holmquist
Swedish Institute of Computer Science