Friday, June 12, 2009
This afternoon we decided to take advantage of our family membership to the Carnegie Museums and check out the members-only preview of Roboworld, the newest exhibit at the Carnegie Science Center. I thought I'd take a moment during the intermission between periods of the Stanley Cup game to blogify an opinion.
First, I should mention that, as new members of the museums, we did not realize that members need to pre-register for members-only events. When we showed up there at no specific time, we were told that a)there were timed entries and the next one was in three hours, and b)all the time slots were sold out. Crap. However, when the time came we were able to talk to a guy behind the counter and weasel our way in for the 5pm slot without too much trouble. Next time, I'll make sure to read the fine print.
The new exhibit is on the 2nd floor, by the planetarium. I believe it replaced some sort of construction-themed exhibit, though it's been a while so I don't remember exactly. The entry to the exhibit is guarded by Andy, a humanoid robot on a pedestal that answers questions and moves around on his stand. However he doesn't directly answer questions you ask; instead he simply spouts answers to pre-programmed questions selected from a computer kiosk to his side. Standard, but not exactly mind-blowing.
Once in the exhibit, the first thing I noticed is how "fresh" everything was. When I think of science centers, I tend to think of kiosks with fading CRT screens, buttons that don't work, big "out of order" signs, and generally worn out, abused crap. Not here. Everything was bright and shiny, and all the computers worked. By this, I was impressed. Around the sides were replicas of everyone's favorite bots from Hollywood (R2D2, Hal, the usual). throughout the space were stand-alone exhibits allowing visitors to understand how vision sensors created images for robots to process, how proximity sensors allowed for obstacle avoidance, etc. McKesson had an exhibit showing a robotic pharmacy where little packets of drugs were selected by computer for distribution to hospital patients. And Aethon had a "helper bot", a faceless box that moved around to different destinations in an imaginary hospital. There were various other small kiosks that were very interesting, plus a robotic "wall of fame" that consisted of a timeline painted on the wall with some sort of sliding LCD that would show highlights of the timeline when you slid it to a certain date. But then, there were a couple of highlights.
First, there was the robotic air hockey game (there's a video at the link). This was a typical air hockey table, and on the other end was a robotic arm with an air hockey paddle attached to it. each player was given 45 seconds to see if they could score against the robot. Most can't, it seems. I watched 8 or so kids try and fail, and then decided to try myself. I scored, but it took some effort.
Another major highlight was the robotic basketball player. This was simply a robotic arm on a stand in an area surrounded by a net. At the end of the arm was a fork, which picked up a basketball, and tossed it high into a basketball net. It made the short virtually every time, and afterwards would make a series of movements that obviously implied the robot was programmed to talk some smack to its opponents. Very cool.
The final highlight was the craft for kids. It consisted of a styrofoam square with a 9-volt battery and a motor attached to it. When the battery was connected, the unit would vibrate and move across the floor like a bug. The kids got to decorate these with feathers and foamies. Nat and Jess loved them.
As I'm writing this, I'm noticing that there are more items on this exhibit list than were at the actual show. We don't recall seeing the Foosbot or the Hazard Bots anywhere. Perhaps we just missed them.
So overall, I'd rate the new exhibit somewhere between a B+ and A-. I think it could have more. With CMU just down the road, I expected more. No Mars Rover. No CMU self-driving vehicles. No Asimo. No Pleo. Not even a Roomba. But if you've going to the Science Center, check it out.