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Minerva goes to Washington

CMU robot escorts visitors at Smithsonian center for invention and innovation

Monday, August 24, 1998

By Byron Spice, Science Editor, Post-Gazette

Minerva's experience as a tour guide is zip, zero, nada. But today she will make her debut at no less a venue than the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of American History in Washington, D.C.

A mobile, self-guided robot, Minerva will escort visitors to the museum's Lemelson Center for the Study of Invention and Innovation for the next two weeks.

A stocky four-foot-tall machine, she will seek out patrons and invite them on a tour. Then, honking, smiling and frowning as necessary to make her way through the throngs, she'll lead her charges while flashing information about the exhibit, "A Material World," on her attached computer screen.

On its face, the use of a robotic tour guide is something of a stunt. "We're not really hiring robots as tour guides," acknowledged Steven Lubar, curator of the museum's robot collection. "We're not really ready for that."

But for Sebastian Thrun, the Carnegie Mellon University researcher whose team invented Minerva, the next two weeks are an opportunity to demonstrate the capabilities of today's mobile robots.

"Robots used to be the cool things that didn't work," Thrun said. "Now robots are the cool things that work."

Though Minerva is new to the museum gig, she is not the first robotic tour guide. The original, also devised by Thrun along with colleagues at the University of Bonn, is named Rhino and was temporarily installed last year at the Deutsches Museum in Bonn.

Three months ago, the first U.S. robotic guide began operations at the Carnegie Museum of Natural History. Also a product of Carnegie Mellon, it is a project of a different team, headed by Illah Nourbakhsh, and is a permanent addition to the museum's Dinosaur Hall.

The challenge of leading museum tours is not something that has inspired many young people to enter the field of robotics, Thrun and Nourbakhsh acknowledged, but it does offer a useful and high-profile environment for understanding how autonomous robots might interact with people.

"It's easy to design machines that move around without bumping into things," Lubar said. "But to go the next step and make them do things that are useful has turned out to be extremely difficult."

Thrun nevertheless envisions a day when mobile robots might scoot around shopping malls, attracting the attention of shoppers and then hitting them with a multimedia sales pitch for whatever store might rent them. Or, people might rent robots to represent them at meetings or conventions they are unable to attend in person. Such a robot could seek out speakers or displays of interest and allow the distant operator to ask questions.

In the meantime museums offer a semicontrolled area where some of these techniques can be perfected, Nourbakhsh said. Museums generate steady crowds, but not the crush of a shopping mall, he noted.

And, from the museum's perspective, "we're always interested in interaction and getting people involved," said Arthur Molella, director of the Lemelson Center. Other museums have used mock-up robots to generate interest in exhibits, he noted, but in Minerva's case, "this is a real robot."

In Bonn, museum attendance went up 50 percent while Rhino was at work, Thrun said. In June, the first full month of operation for Chips, attendance at the Carnegie Museums of Pittsburgh was 27,687, up 30 percent over June 1997.

It's hard to say how much of that increase is attributable to Chips, museum spokeswoman Sandra Lepri said, but 80 percent of visitors go to the Museum of Natural History and almost all of them make a beeline to Dinosaur Hall.

Insofar as the Lemelson Center seeks to encourage inventive creativity in young people, Molella is less interested in displaying artifacts, even one as unusual as Minerva, than in getting inventors to come to the center to tell people about their lives and answer questions about how they invent things.

"I'm interested in demonstrating Sebastian Thrun," Molella said.

Museum staff members will be videotaping Thrun and his colleagues as they work with Minerva, which could become part of a later program. Thrun and his team will also answer questions during a public session at the museum Thursday morning.

Molella first heard about Thrun, 31, from a colleague in Bonn who told him about the Rhino robot. Thrun went to Washington for a visit and showed Molella and his staff a videotape of Rhino. Soon both sides agreed to this week's demonstration.

Thrun, raised in the town of Hildeshein in northern Germany, received his doctorate at the University of Bonn. He joined Carnegie Mellon three years ago, while simultaneously serving a postdoctoral fellowship in Bonn. Much of the Rhino team from Bonn is now involved in the Minerva project.

Thrun has also constructed a third robot, called Jeeves, which picks up tennis balls from a tennis court. But Minerva, Jeeves and Rhino are only side projects for his team, which last month began a four-year effort to design reconnaissance robots for the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency.

The "man-portable" robots, each about the size of a knapsack, would be deployed as teams. The idea, Thrun said, is that the cheap, simple robots could be tossed into buildings, where they could go exploring, developing maps of the floor plan and determining whether they are occupied or booby trapped.

The military might use the robots to reduce risk to soldiers involved in urban warfare, Thrun said, but they might also be used by police, firefighters and rescue workers.

Some of the same software used by those robots to explore and map buildings has been incorporated into Minerva, he noted.

Minerva's body was built by Real World Interface Inc., a Jaffrey, N.H., company that also built the undercarriage of both Rhino and the Carnegie's Chips. That body, on loan to Carnegie Mellon, was delivered only a few weeks ago. Since then, Thrun and his team have added software and some special equipment, such as speakers and a "mouth" -- three orange plastic sticks that can be manipulated into a frown or a smile as needed.

Minerva will frown if someone stands too close to her and will smile when people are nearby. She is programmed to seek out people, rather than wait for them to come to her. A clap will get her attention.

"People couldn't be more bored to see a robot move around," Thrun said. "What gets them excited is robots that seek them out."

A video camera pointed at the ceiling allows Minerva to pick out landmarks it can use to maneuver through the museum. Laser rangefinders and an array of sonar devices help position the robot and keep it from running into or over people.

Nourbakhsh said Chips took a different, complementary approach. Chips' navigation software is far more rudimentary than Minerva's, for instance. Nourbakhsh's team instead has worked to make Chips the best possible educator.

Chips originally made six stops in Dinosaur Hall, playing 3 1/2-minute videos at each stop. That's too long to hold interest, so the Chips team is opting for more stops, a more animated Chips, and shorter presentations.

Positioning has also proved critical. If Chips is displaying a neck bone on its computer monitor, it should be near the neckbone fossil, so visitors' eyes move naturally from the robot to the fossil, Nourbakhsh said.

Chips has begun displaying more personality, altering the tone and speed of its speech to match its mood or energy level. He's also growing more talkative, peppering presentations with "hello," "goodbye" and "excuse me."

Thrun and Nourbakhsh remain circumspect about why two different research groups at the same school are developing robotic museum guides, but both insist that they are not competitors.

"We're working on different pieces of the same puzzle," Nourbakhsh said.

Minerva will give an after-hours tour of the "Material World" exhibit via the Internet from 6 to 8 p.m. Thursday. Participants can see through Minerva's eyes and direct her to take a closer look at parts of the exhibit. Anyone can get on the tour via the Lemelson Center website.

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