If we hope to make truly social robots that people feel comfortable talking to, there are a lot of hurdles we still have to clear. Language is just one of them. Face-to-face human interaction is a complex ritual involving not just spoken words, but body language, nonverbal cues and about a million other elements — half of which are essentially subconscious.

For example, consider the idea of eye contact. We don’t incessantly stare at other people when we speak to them, and we don’t expect them to stare back. Unless they’re Kylo Ren.

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Programming companion robots to understand this kind of social protocol is tricky but crucial, according to researcher Sean Andrist, a Ph.D. student at the University of Wisconsin’s Department of Computer Sciences.

An interesting write-up over at IEEE Spectrum details Andrist’s research, which involves the “gaze mechanisms” that we humans take for granted when interacting with one another. The goal is to improve the function of both physical humanoid robots and virtual avatars by establishing rules that govern when, why and for how long they maintain eye contact.

In the course of developing his research paper — titled “Look Like Me: Matching Robot Personality via Gaze to Increase Motivation” — Andrist and his collaborators discovered something interesting. When working with “socially assistive” robots — those meant to instruct or motivate their human partner — test subjects performed tasks much more successfully when gaze mechanisms were tweaked.

“The conversations were much more fluid when the robot looked away correctly,” Andrist says in his presentation video. “People enjoyed talking to that robot more.”

In addition, the research found that test subjects performed better when paired with a robot that matched their personality type — introverted versus extroverted, for example.

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This line of research could have significant real-world impact in years to come, particularly in the field of companion robots programmed to help people in specific circumstances.

“Imagine a robot that could help you when you get old, to take your medicine, to exercise, to basically help you keep your independence,” Andrist says.

“You’ve probably heard the expression that the eyes are the windows to the soul. Even though robots may not have souls, I do believe their eyes are the windows to more successful interactions.”

You can see some footage of the social robots at work in this short demonstration video.

Just don’t stare.