A Robot Guide to Dinosaur Hall

by R. Jay Gangewere

A talking robot giving a tour of Dinosaur Hall? Showing you animated videos of T.rex, giant sauropods and other ancient reptiles while it explains the fossils you see in front of you?

No other museum in the world has such a unique docent to help visitors enjoy a museum hall. It is the joint creation of Carnegie Museum of Natural History and the Robotics Institute of Carnegie Mellon University. Jay Apt, director of the museum, and Red Whittaker, CMU's famous expert on field robotics, decided to join forces and produce the first truly independent or autonomous robot-guide in a museum. The museum's paleontologists and educators supplied the subject matter, and the university's robotics engineers produced the technology. The result is a breakthrough application of field robotics that has important implications for all museums and other organizations needing interpretation in public areas.

Unlike most research robots which are designed to be operated by humans from a command center, or the roving security robots which are programmed to give an alarm when they see something unusual, this robot really is on its own. It is a mechanical docent that starts itself up in the morning, recharges its own batteries, and parks itself away at the end of the day. If it is in trouble it e-mails for help, explaining that it needs new batteries, or is losing its landmarks and becoming lost. The CMU engineers are close by to solve the problems as needed.

The robot has a vision camera and sonar to operate harmlessly among people, and it has been "childproofed" so that little fingers can't hurt it, or be hurt by it. After it introduces itself, the robot leads visitors to five different locations in the hall, and uses moving pictures and a narrative at each site.

For robotics engineers, creating a robot that can navigate exclusively by using vision systems or video cameras is like reaching the Holy Grail. Once a robot recognizes color, texture and hue, it can react more fully to unique landmarks such as a moving people or objects. The long-established sonar basis of navigation - or soundwaves bouncing back from a surface to determine distance - gives more limited information about distinctive shapes and the environment. While this robot uses both vision and sonar, CMU engineers will refine it further, and it will become the first robot to rely exclusively on visual cues for navigation. It will also gain new control buttons, which visitors can push to direct it to a chosen subject.

At CMU the project director in charge is assistant professor Illah Nourbakhsh (Nour-bash), an expert on artificial intelligence recently come to Pittsburgh from Stanford University. The unparalleled facilities and mission of the Robotics Institute drew him here, and the easy connection to the famous natural history museum made this project a logical development. "We simply had to wheel the robot down the street to the museum," says Nourbakhsh. Placing an experimental robot "in the field" doesn't get much easier than that.

At the museum the narratives and pictures were developed by Ron Lutz of the department of Exhibit Design and Production, who reflects the museum's effort to expand its technological services to the public. Lutz drew upon paleontologists and educators to guarantee the accuracy of the messages, and then went to great lengths to produce entertaining dialogue and get outstanding animations. He gave the robot a friendly look, with a bow-tie of speakers. The robot's name will be chosen through a public contest.

Visitors to Carnegie Museum of Natural History's Hall of Dinosaurs can now see and enjoy this significant Pittsburgh breakthrough in communications technology. This first model signals a new generation of robots. Over time, this robot will develop a richer relationship to its viewers, and present customized tours based on the choices of the public.

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