Characterizing Mental Workload in Physical Human-Robot Interaction Using Eye-Tracking Measures

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Virginia Tech


Recent technological developments have ushered in an exciting era for collaborative robots (cobots), which can operate in close proximity with humans, sharing and supporting task goals. While there is increasing research on the biomechanical and ergonomic consequences of using cobots, there is relatively little work on the potential motor-cognitive demand associated with these devices. These cognitive demands primarily stem from the need to form accurate internal (mental) models of robot behavior, while also dealing with the intrinsic motor-cognitive demands of physical co-manipulation tasks, and visually monitoring the environment to ensure safe operation. The primary aim of this work was to investigate the viability of eye-tracking measures for characterizing mental workload during the use of cobots, while accounting for the potential effects of learning, task-type, expertise, and age-differences. While eye-tracking is gaining traction in surgical/rehabilitation robotics domains, systematic investigations of eye tracking for studying interactions with industrial cobots are currently lacking. We conducted three studies in which participants of different ages and expertise levels learned to perform upper- and lower-limb tasks using a dual-armed cobot and a whole-body powered exoskeleton respectively, over multiple trials. Robot-control difficulty was manipulated by changing the joint impedance on one of the robot arms (for the dual-armed cobot). The first study demonstrated that when individuals were learning to interact with a dual-armed cobot to perform an upper-limb co-manipulation task simulated in a virtual reality (VR) environment, pupil dilation (PD) and stationary gaze entropy (SGE) were the most sensitive and reliable measures of mental workload. A combination of eye-tracking measures predicted performance with greater accuracy than experimental task variables. Measures of visual attentional focus were more sensitive to task difficulty manipulations than typical eye-tracking workload measures, and PD was most sensitive to changes in workload over learning. The second study showed that compared to walking freely, walking while using a complex whole-body powered exoskeleton: a) increased PD of novices but not experts, b) led to reduced SGE in both groups and c) led to greater downward focused gaze (on the walking path) in experts compared to novices. In the third study using an upper-limb co-manipulation task similar to Study 1, we found that the PD of younger adults reduced at a faster rate over learning, compared to that of older adults, and older adults showed a significantly greater drop in gaze transition entropy with an increase in task difficulty, compared to younger adults. Also, PD was sensitive to learning and robot-difficulty but not environmental-complexity (collisions with objects in the task environment), and gaze-behavior measures were generally more sensitive to environmental-complexity. This research is the first to conduct a comprehensive analysis of mental workload in physical human-robot interaction using eye-tracking measures. PD was consistently found to show larger effects over learning, compared to task difficulty. Gaze-behavior measures quantifying visual attention towards environmental areas of interest were found to show relatively large effects of task difficulty and should continue to be explored in future research. While walking in a powered exoskeleton, both novices and experts exhibited compensatory gaze strategies. This finding highlights potentially persistent effects of using cobots on visual attention, with potential implications to safety and situational awareness. Older adults were found to apply greater mental effort (indicated by sustained PD) and followed more constrained gaze patterns in order to maintain similar levels of performance to younger adults. Perceived workload measures could not capture these age-differences, thus highlighting the advantages of eye-tracking measures. Lastly, the differential sensitivity of pupillary- and gaze behavior metrics to different types of task demands highlights the need for future research to employ both kinds of measures for evaluating pHRI. Important questions for future research are the potential sensitivity of eye-tracking workload measures over long-term adaptations to cobots, and the potential generalizability of eye-tracking measures to real-world (non-VR) tasks.



Visuomotor Coordination, Gaze Entropy, Collaborative Robotics, Exoskeletons, Virtual Reality, Motor Learning, Age Differences