Vir­tual Museum Guide Pro­vides Infor­ma­tion and Makes Friends with Guests

The Museum of Sci­ence unveils the world’s first vir­tual, inter­ac­tive and social vis­i­tors’ guide cre­ated by North­eastern Uni­ver­sity com­puter sci­ence pro­fessor Tim­othy Bick­more. As a vir­tual vol­un­teer at the Museum’s Cah­ners Com­put­er­Place, the 6-​​foot-​​tall 3D com­puter gen­er­ated dig­ital robot, named “Tinker,” plays the role of a female and uses both speech and ani­mated behavior to carry on con­ver­sa­tions with vis­i­tors about the Museum and the tech­nology and theory behind its own creation.

In addi­tion to pro­viding infor­ma­tion about Com­put­er­Place exhibits and gen­eral Museum direc­tions, Tinker uses a bio­metric sensor to iden­tify users, allowing her to remember them after they walk away and con­tinue the con­ver­sa­tion upon their return. Tinker will even address them by name and keep track of her social rela­tion­ship with each guest.

The exhibit opens on Feb­ruary 24th at the Museum of Science.

Tinker uses a deep dia­logue model to carry on extended coherent con­ver­sa­tions about mul­tiple topics while com­mu­ni­cating non-​​verbally as well,” said Bick­more, Assis­tant Pro­fessor in the School of Com­puter and Infor­ma­tion Sci­ence at North­eastern Uni­ver­sity. “The incor­po­ra­tion of prin­ci­ples from the social psy­chology of human per­sonal rela­tion­ships rep­re­sents a promising and impor­tant direc­tion of research to fur­ther engage and enter­tain Museum visitors.”

Tinker was devel­oped over an eight-​​month period in close col­lab­o­ra­tion with the Museum’s Com­put­er­Place staff using input from both employees and vis­i­tors. Tinker’s dia­logue con­tent, char­acter ani­ma­tion, and phys­ical instal­la­tion were cre­ated based on exten­sive research and obser­va­tion of inter­ac­tions between staff and vis­i­tors. Tinker’s dia­logue about com­puters is tai­lored to each visitor’s level of tech­no­log­ical lit­eracy based on an ini­tial con­ver­sa­tion between the robot and each visitor.

We are thrilled to have Tinker help make our vis­i­tors’ expe­ri­ences more exciting, com­pelling and edu­ca­tional,” said Dan Noren, pro­gram man­ager of Cah­ners Com­put­er­Place in the Museum of Sci­ence. “Tim and his team at North­eastern have given Tinker a working knowl­edge of Com­put­er­Place exhibits and activ­i­ties, the ani­mated per­son­ality of someone you enjoy talking to, and the sen­si­tivity of a friend who remem­bers and calls you by name, under­stands how you feel, and like the rest of the vol­un­teers and staff in Com­put­er­Place will help you any way she can. Tinker will even tell you how friendly she thinks you are!”

Tinker’s vir­tual envi­ron­ment includes a large, scrolling text panel to engage vis­i­tors and sup­port indi­vid­uals with hearing impair­ments. The ani­mated robot is pro­jected onto a 3’ by 4’ screen and runs on two net­worked com­puters. Tinker uses sev­eral sen­sors including a hand image-​​based bio­metric iden­ti­fi­ca­tion system to record vis­itor infor­ma­tion so she can remember them in the future. When asked, Tinker explains the tech­nology and dis­cusses any pri­vacy concerns.

The Museum of Sci­ence has intro­duced Tinker to a group of par­tic­i­pants as part of a test run and by and large, the feed­back was pos­i­tive. Vis­i­tors enjoyed the social and rela­tional dia­logue, as well as the sci­ence content.

The exhibit will be used as a research plat­form by Bick­more and his team, as well as by Com­put­er­Place staff to con­tinue to explore new ways to engage and inform Museum visitors.

For more infor­ma­tion, please con­tact Renata Nyul at 617–373-7424 or at r.​nyul@​neu.​edu.

About North­eastern

Founded in 1898, North­eastern Uni­ver­sity is a pri­vate research uni­ver­sity located in the heart of Boston. North­eastern is a leader in inter­dis­ci­pli­nary research, urban engage­ment, and the inte­gra­tion of class­room learning with real-​​world expe­ri­ence. The university’s dis­tinc­tive coop­er­a­tive edu­ca­tion pro­gram, where stu­dents alter­nate semes­ters of full-​​time study with semes­ters of paid work in fields rel­e­vant to their pro­fes­sional inter­ests and major, is one of the largest and most inno­v­a­tive in the world. The Uni­ver­sity offers a com­pre­hen­sive range of under­grad­uate and grad­uate pro­grams leading to degrees through the doc­torate in six under­grad­uate col­leges, eight grad­uate schools, and two part-​​time divi­sions. For more infor­ma­tion, please visit www​.north​eastern​.edu.

About the Museum of Science

One of the world’s largest sci­ence cen­ters and Boston’s most-​​attended cul­tural insti­tu­tion, attracting approx­i­mately 1.6 mil­lion vis­i­tors annu­ally, the Museum of Sci­ence takes a hands-​​on approach to sci­ence and tech­nology with its vibrant pro­grams and over 700 inter­ac­tive exhibits. High­lights include the Charles Hayden Plan­e­tarium; the Mugar Omni The­ater, a 180-​​degree IMAX® domed the­atre; and the Gordon Cur­rent Sci­ence &Tech­nology Center (GCS&T), which offers breaking news sto­ries to the public with inter­pre­ta­tion by Museum staff. In 2004, the Museum launched the National Center for Tech­no­log­ical Lit­eracy® (NCTL®). NCTL is helping facil­i­tate a nation­wide expan­sion of tech­nology lit­eracy by working with regional schools, offering edu­ca­tional prod­ucts and pro­grams for pre-​​K-​​12 stu­dents and teachers, cre­ating cur­ricula, and sup­porting an online resource center. For more infor­ma­tion, visit mos​.org.