Northeastern University Robot Chats with Museum of Science Visitors

February 14, 2008

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.northeastern.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.   

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

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