Robotics is among the most rapidly changing fields of design and engineering today, with new innovations appearing by the week. The Powerhouse Museum is involved not only in putting robots on display, but also participating in robotic design. The projects ‘Pathways to Space’ and ‘Articulated Head’ show complex robot design at each of three levels: components, connections and concepts.
Every new cultural artefact is defined partly by its components, partly by how its components are arranged, and partly by the concepts and contexts motivating its design. Designing a robot involves selecting components in hardware and software that suit the purpose, including sensors to perceive the world, effectors to act, and powerful and efficient motors to move in the world. How these components are adapted, configured and combined is critical to a robot’s success: to balance speed against traction, conserve battery life, minimise costs and so on.
Robot designs also manifest the shifting concepts of what is possible and desirable in a robot. Designers’ choices reflect the social and physical contexts around the robot design process. Robotics has developed in some diverse contexts, when particular communities find value in employing autonomous non-human actors. Motor manufacturers added industrial robots into their assembly lines; the Japanese and Korean governments seeded robotics; the US military and space industries needed autonomous devices; and school robot clubs wanted new ways of learning. Such communities accumulate resources and tell stories that inform their ongoing development. They stabilise spaces, foster design traditions and build resilience.
The ‘Pathways to Space’ project has a prominent presence in the Powerhouse Museum, with rovers wandering through a slice of Martian-like landscape called the ‘Mars Yard’, in the Cyberworlds exhibition. This physical environment is tuned for testing robotic rovers, as it offers similar challenges to those that the rover will face on Mars: an undulating topography with meteorite strewn red-dusty ground. Design choices must be oriented towards resolving the specific challenges of these spaces.
However, ‘Pathways’ is not simply showing finished exhibits. It is an active design space in which new components are conceived, chosen and arranged.This environment is not only dusty, but also culturally complex. The museum has to serve visitors and other stakeholders. The time and space of school and academic experimentation do not always match visitors’ expectations about normal museums. Visitors expect to learn, to be entertained, to participate, to understand, and so on.
As well as being an exhibit, the project is a collaboration between several disciplines at different institutions. It is a space for schools to learn about Mars. It is also a space for researchers at the Australian Centre for Astrobiology (ACA) at the University of New South Wales, who direct the objective of the Mars rover project — finding evidence of extra-terrestrial life. Researchers from the Australian Centre for Field Robotics (ACFR) develop the robotic systems for a rover that can orient itself, map its surroundings, and operate autonomously in a remote location. The teams must innovate in parallel, simultaneously.
The museum environment has presented unexpected challenges for a robot prototype. One rover team decided to place visual guides on the ceiling to make it easier for the robot to follow a path through the exhibition. These markings helped the robot sense direction and orientation. Then one day, the robot lost its bearings. It could no longer find the markers.
The rover team then noticed that some lights in the exhibit, which had previously been switched on, were now off. They were maintenance lights that had been on temporarily at the time when the researchers calibrated the robot’s visual guidance systems. The darker environment tested the limits of the robot’s camera sensors. Even in the constrained space of a museum, the changeable physical world can be fickle as an information space.A project such as ‘Pathways to Space’ involves many discrete but interconnected practices. Many problems for robot Mars rovers are in the immaterial realm of communication. So another dimension for the exhibit / research project brought in additional partners: CISCO Systems and AARNET, who develop the high speed networking and telepresence systems.
In planned simulation exercises, students will be able to communicate from the ‘Mission Control’ area in ThinkSpace to others on the Mars Yard, and even remotely to the Astrobiologists at ACA and beyond. Telepresence connects local display systems with remote cameras, and interfaces that should ideally give users rich information and a sense of agency across distances.
Another exhibit at the Powerhouse also explores the phenomenon of robotic telepresence, but in different ways. ‘The Articulated Head’ is motivated by the art practice of the notorious new media artist Stelarc. He contributes his concepts, animated face and synthesised voice to the exhibit, drawing on the skills of collaborators from the MARCS Auditory Laboratory at the University of Western Sydney.
Stelarc’s face appears on an LCD screen mounted on a conventional industrial robot arm. This powerful arm is housed within a cage-like structure, giving the arm the freedom to swing the screen that features Stelarc’s on-screen face to ‘look at’ visitors as they approach the exhibit. When visitors speak, the system recognises the direction from which the voice comes, and tends to move in that direction. Stelarc’s synthesised voice speaks as an artificially intelligent chat bot that responds to the visitors’ typed input on a keyboard.
While the ‘Articulated Head’ works autonomously, there is a research dimension in the installation. Behind the cage are computers controlling Stelarc’s presence, and space for operators to observe and analyse how visitors are interacting with the robot. Again, the museum becomes a participant in production of knowledge about robotics, as well as a medium for displaying known information.
By bringing the design processes into the museum, the Powerhouse Museum reveals not only the points of choosing and connecting components, but the complex and heterogeneous processes as collaborative design ideas congeal into innovative concepts and working systems.