Carnegie Mellon Researchers Develop Nation's First Robotic Tour Guide For The Dinosaur Hall At Pittsburgh's Carnegie Museum Of Natural History

May 26, 1998

PITTSBURGH--Researchers at Carnegie Mellon University's Robotics Institute have created an autonomous mobile robot that will be a tour guide in the world famous Dinosaur Hall at Pittsburgh's Carnegie Museum of Natural History.

It represents the first time a robot will be deployed on the floor of a U.S. museum to interact with visitors as a permanent part of an exhibit.

The new tour experience is the result of the work of people at the museum, the university and RedZone Robotics, Inc. The robot is based on navigation technology developed at Carnegie Mellon. The museum and RedZone have worked on the integration of the robot into the museum environment by providing multimedia displays and docking hardware.

The robot, currently called 'Sage,' but whose official name will be chosen in a contest, has a dome-shaped head and an ostrich like neck set on top of a cylinder-shaped body that moves on wheels. 'Sage' has the ability to detect and respond to the presence of people and lead them on a 15-minute tour of the Dinosaur Hall using video and other information on demand in a multimedia format.

The tour will focus on specimens featured in the hall, including an Apatosaurus, Tyrannosaurus rex and several ancient marine reptiles. 'Sage' also can discuss theories on extinction and why some dinosaurs are so large.

"This robot is unique in its ability to function in a public environment without any human guidance," said Illah R. Nourbakhsh, assistant professor of robotics at Carnegie Mellon and lead engineer on the 'Sage' project. "Over time, this machine will learn to respond to people in a more sophisticated way. The development of human qualities, such as personality, is uncharted territory in robotics."

"'Sage' is part of an initiative to augment the experience people have in museums," explained Robotics Institute principal investigator William L. (Red) Whittaker. "It will bring the dynamic, interactive environment fostered in science centers into museums, which have collected the wonders of the Earth but whose visitors are now limited to 'look but don't touch,' passive experiences."

Whittaker said in the past 10 years alone, much has been learned about the evolution and demise of the dinosaurs, but the experience of museum visitors has remained the same as it has been for more than a century.

The 'Sage' robot consists of a standard platform, a product of Nomadic Technologies, Inc., (Mountain View, Calif.) that has been customized and given capabilities to navigate safely, act autonomously, avoid obstacles and thank people when they get out of its way. It can also navigate with enough accuracy to plug itself into a dock and recharge its batteries.

A multimedia system installed inside the robot plays clips of a movie developed by the museum's Exhibits and Education departments. 'Sage' will lead tours by stopping at various exhibits controlled by the navigation system. When it stops, and visitors press the correct button, it will play an appropriate movie clip accompanied by sound. When visitors press a button under the video display, it will also give closed captions on the movie screen so that those who are hearing impaired can enjoy the tour as well.

Initially, 'Sage' will have a set dialogue. Speech recognition capabilities will be added at a later date, along with the ability to trigger projections on visual displays in the hall and interact with a new computer-controlled lighting system the museum is installing. Other planned upgrades will allow Web browsers to interact with 'Sage' and show behind-the-scenes activities at the museum.

RedZone plans to continue technology development of 'Sage' through the summer, leading to a second-generation robot that will debut at the museum in the fall. The company plans to advance the navigation system and develop the first pieces of interactive capabilities.

"Nearly a century ago, steel magnate Andrew Carnegie pioneered in excavating and displaying dinosaurs at the Carnegie Museum of Natural History, which he founded," said museum director Jay Apt. "Once again, the museum is reaffirming its scientific leadership role by using the best of today's interactive technologies to bring these amazing creatures and their continually unfolding stories to the public. This type of robotics technology is a cutting-edge exhibit technique we are proud to debut."

The Carnegie Museum of Natural History's Dinosaur Hall displays what are considered the world's best-preserved full skeletons of Allosaurus, Apatosaurus, Camarasaurus, Camptosaurus, Corythosaurus, Diplodocus, Dryosaurus, Protoceratops, Stegosaurus and the first Tyrannosaurus rex skeleton ever discovered and only one of eight known. The entire dinosaur collection contains approximately 500 specimens and is the third largest in the world.

The museum began collecting the giant fossils in 1898 after Carnegie read a newspaper article titled the "Most Colossal Animal Ever on Earth Just Found Out West." In pursuit of these awe inspiring specimens for Pittsburgh, Carnegie financed an expedition to Wyoming that yielded the museum's first dinosaur find, the 84-foot-long Diplodocus carnegii. Casts of this creature, which is one of the longest known dinosaurs, are on display in other museums around the world.

Carnegie Mellon University

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