A World of Robotics
You step into the hall and find yourself challenged by a robot to arm wrestle. Unbeknownst to you, the robot is communicating information about you across the building to a second robot, which is taking on another visitor. The result: Through robotics, you’re engaged in virtual arm wrestling with another human you can’t even see.
Other robots are there to invite you to other competitions against them — shooting free throws or constructing a building-block house against a blueprint. After these modern marvels take you to the woodshed, you enter the Robot Hall of Fame to meet some of the world’s most famous and important robots — a few in person, most by video timeline.
Now you’re ready for the piece de resistance — the Robot Workshop, where one of the world’s robotics pioneers is testing its latest consumer robotic device . . . and wants your feedback.
Welcome to roboworld, the permanent exhibition the Carnegie Science Center
plans to premiere in spring 2009. To be housed on 6,000 square feet of the building’s second floor, the exhibition may be the most ambitious attempt anywhere to expand understanding and awareness of robotics among the general public.A World Apart
Although the center has toured a smaller robotics exhibition since 1996 — it’s been seen by more than 3.5 million people in a score of cities — roboworld did not emerge from that experience alone. Instead, it grew from a comprehensive ascertainment exercise. Says center Director Joanna Haas:
“This was a process of interviewing stakeholders, talking to visitors, understanding the needs, desires and interests of a variety of constituencies — everything from students to teachers to members to people who partner and collaborate with us in the community — and asking: ‘What is it that we should be doing for today’s generation of learners and future generations?’”
Respondents suggested that robotics, astronomy, health care, medical technology and environmental sciences should be areas of emphasis. The center responded with, among other thrusts, roboworld.
As befitting an exhibition with such a broad scope, roboworld will serve several purposes. One is to present robotics as a fertile field for careers.
“We want people, kids especially, to understand that there’s a wide range of careers, from engineering to design, involved with robotics, and there are a lot of different roads in,” says Ron Baillie, chief program manager for the center.
He notes that the exhibition can introduce the occasionally knotty issues surrounding the growing use of robots to visitors who may not have considered such nuances before.
“We want to raise questions about where we want robots in our lives,” Baillie says. “Where do we want technology? Where do we want to draw the line? Some of the products out there already are pushing the edges of that discussion. We’re not giving the answers; we want people to start to think about those things.”Hey! We're a World Leader!
And of course, while Pittsburgh residents may know that, through such institutions as Carnegie Mellon University
and its National Robotics Engineering Center
, the region is a world leader in robotics, roboworld may carry that message more broadly.
“We want to be a catalyst for local public awareness but also take Pittsburgh and put it on a bigger playing field and be part of the effort to shout these things from the mountaintop,” Haas says.
Creating such a far-reaching exhibition is not without its challenges. One is the problem of keeping roboworld current in a field so inherently dynamic.
“We’ve seen other science centers take on the subject of technology broadly and really struggle with it,” Haas notes. “By the time you fund-raise and develop your plan, it’s out of date.”
The Hall of Fame, which was founded by Carnegie Mellon’s School of Computer Science, will bring an element of freshness. Although a class has been inducted each year since 2003 — R2-D2, C-3PO (both of Star Wars fame) and HAL (2001: A Space Odyssey) are prominent members — the hall has been mostly a concept, including an annual ceremony and a Web site. roboworld will give the hall a robust physical presence, bringing a new class — and new points of interest — each year.
The Robot Workshop could be even more exciting. Haas and Baillie envision that this space will be used for presentations, lectures, seminars and, most dramatically, product testing.
“Companies can interact with visitors, show off their stuff, beta-test their devices, kick the tires on things,” Haas says. “If you plan to bring a product to the consumer marketplace, you’d better be sure it can withstand the rigors of a science center environment. We might even do product launches as part of this exhibit. Won’t that be great fun?”
Finding the $3.4 million necessary to create the exhibition doesn’t sound like great fun, but that effort has gone well. The center already has raised more than $2.5 million for roboworld and has attracted a growing list of collaborators, actual and potential. Carnegie Mellon's Entertainment Technology Center
and Robotics Institute
have signed on as partners while the project advisory committee includes representatives from such high-tech heavyweights as 4moms
, Draper Triangle Ventures
and Integrated Industrial Technologies
. Expect more partnership announcements soon.
roboworld has reached the engineering phase, a tricky bit of business.
“It’s several layers beyond anything we’ve ever done,” Baillie says. “In a single exhibit, you might have several points with some sophisticated technology that you have to make work and manage. Every one is like that in this case.”
Perhaps the most extraordinary aspect of roboworld is that center staff are designing, building and installing the exhibition without the aid of consultants, a tribute to the breadth of robotics expertise at the Carnegie Science Center — and in the region.
“We’re putting Pittsburgh where it deserves to be — at the center of the robotics movement,” Haas says. “The only place in the world this thing should be is right here.”
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All photographs copyright Brian CohenRoboworld rendering courtesy Carnegie Science Center