#Modern: Meet the hitchhiking, art critic robot


kulturBOT 1.0, made of found materials, tweets art reviews (Courtesy David Harris Smith)

Don’t understand art? Too scared to hitchhike? Ryerson has a robot for that.

Frauke Zeller, an assistant professor at Ryerson, has built two robots with very different purposes: one tweets art criticism and the other will soon hitchhike across Canada.

The art critic robot, called the kulturBOT 1.0, attends art exhibitions and tweets text-captioned photos of the artworks, visitors and venue. From January to March of this year, the robot toured around the About the Mind exhibit at McMaster University, exploring how we think and communicate about art, while at the same time exploring how we think about and interact with robots.

The hitchhiking robot, hitchBot 1.0, is still being completed. Its intended journey will begin in Canada’s Maritime provinces and span all the way to British Columbia.

With hitchBot, Zeller hopes to demystify hitchhiking as a dangerous mode of transportation. “Is hitchhiking as dangerous for robots as it is for humans? That’s something we’re trying to find out,” Zeller says. The robot will even give prompts to its human companions, to share stories while passing the time on the road, and then record these stories through a cellphone chip.

“We’re living in an aging society, which is going to need more and more help from robots,” she says. “So, we need people to trust robots and communicate well with them.”

Zeller’s robotic research centres on interactions between humans and robots, and how the two communicate. In movies, humans are often afraid of robots (for example, Will Smith’s robot vendetta in the sci-fi movie iRobot). Zeller hopes to rebuild robot-human trust with her creations.

“If you look around, we have robots everywhere,” Zeller says. “They’re not R2D2, but they’re our smartphones and coffee machines.”

Zeller started at Ryerson last fall as an assistant professor in the professional communication program. When she came to Toronto, her research on robots moved with her. She is currently hiring research assistants for this summer and will be looking for Ryerson students to fill the positions.

The robots are a collaborative project between Zeller and David Harris Smith, professor of communication studies and multimedia at McMaster and a Ryerson alumnus. The two will be using Ryerson facilities as they build, research and problem-solve their robotic projects.

During the process of creating kulturBot 1.0, Zeller used a lot of found materials, since it’s expensive to develop tools exclusively for a robot. The art aficionado moves around on a rejigged Rumba – a free-roaming floor vacuum – with its mechanical guts held together by a kitchen sieve.

Zeller and Smith are currently working on kulturBot 2.0, an updated version of their first bot, which will have improved mobility and better battery life.

“(The first kulturBot) was a very high-maintenance robot. We would have to rush into the exhibit every two hours, and make sure the robot was charged,” Smith says. The next version will be programmed to return to a charging pad.

The two researchers are basing the kulturBot 2.0 design around Xbox Kinect and a Rumba vacuum. With the Xbox Kinect inspiration, kulturBot 2.0 will be able to track the shape of the room it’s in, which means less running into walls. It will also track the people moving throughout the room, which gives the researchers data about how crowds are interacting with the exhibit space and artwork.

Zeller and Smith also plan to change the look of kulturBot to be more anthropomorphic, without creating something creepy. “We’re thinking somewhere between R2D2 and Pinocchio,” Smith says.

This story was first published in The Ryersonian, a weekly newspaper produced by the Ryerson School of Journalism, on March 26, 2014.

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