Robot as your museum tour guide

Robot as your museum tour guide

Many museums are turning to robots to make culture more accessible and democratic - to build an international following and attract disabled visitors

Robot as your museum tour guide

Near the edge of a parapet of stacked sandbags, a test robot rumbles, offering visitors hundreds of miles away a bleak view of military life in World War I trenches.

A real French or German soldier could never have seen more than about 30 feet along the zigzag shelters. But now, at the Musée de La Grande Guerre or the Museum of the Great War, ultimately anyone in the world will be able to pilot a robot by computer to zoom in for a close look at cramped replicas of German and French dugouts.

The robot does not have a name yet. But it reflects the growing experimentation with so-called telepresence creatures in institutions from the American Museum of Natural History in New York and the Mob Museum in Las Vegas to the Canada Science and Technology Museum in Ottawa, Ontario. Many of them are turning to robots to make culture more accessible and democratic — to build an international following and attract disabled visitors unable to make personal tours.

“The idea is not to replace humans with robots, but to reach people and distant visitors, thanks to technology,” said Eléna Le Gall, a community manager for the World War I museum, which opened in 2011 in a vast, three-story building in this town about 30 miles east of Paris.

For the last three years, a consortium of six French companies has been developing the robot, which now looks more like an industrial vacuum cleaner topped by a screen and equipped with three computers, a camera and a microphone. A human guide always trails at its side to offer running commentary while visitors direct its path. Laser technology brings it to a halt when obstacles loom.

The eventual goal is to use mass production to bring down the price of the robots to about 2,000 euros ($2,100) from about 20,000 euros, according to Didier Sansier, the manager of Another World, a French technology company and one of the partners in the French project.
“It’s the future, but it doesn’t replace the emotions of a visit,” said Sansier, as he stalked a test robot by a trench to the piped music of French soldiers singing “La Marseillaise.”

Museums have been experimenting with robots since the 1990s, but it is only in the last five years that new companies have produced telepresence robots that can be exploited as guides or electronic showmen to attract visitors — especially during hours when the institutions are closed or underused.

Two years ago, the Tate Britain deployed four robots and four human guides for visitors to explore its galleries after dark, via computer, from 10 pm to 3 am, while its art was usually sleeping. The American Museum of Natural History has also used robots powered by distant tour guides: indigenous people from Haida Gwaii, an archipelago off the north coast of British Columbia, for an exhibition involving their culture.

Last year, the Quai Branly, the museum of indigenous art in Paris, tried something even more sophisticated. With its exhibition “Persona Strangely Human,” it featured a robot critic — with a bowler hat, scarf and googly eyes — that was programmed to record visitor reactions to artworks through a camera in its right eye. Then it used the data to develop its own taste, which it expressed with colours — green for a positive impression, red for a negative view.

The market for so-called telepresence robots is expected to grow from $825 million in 2015 to $7 billion by 2022, as the devices become more sophisticated, with sensors and navigation software, according to the market research firm Wintergreen.

Caroline Boutin, a spokeswoman for the Canada Science and Technology museum, said that while its building was closed for an $80.5 million renovation project, it was testing the French robot and exploring a pilot project that would coincide with the reopening of the museum next fall.

“A robot roaming the museum’s gallery becomes an exhibit in itself — evoking people’s curiosity and sparking the imagination,” she said, adding that roving robots could also link schools with experts, such as scientists who “could remotely lead a group through a tour of important scientific discoveries.”

Travelling robot

The museum has also acquired a travelling robot, Hitchbot, a solar-powered device that researchers created in 2014 from a plastic bucket, a cake holder and flexible limbs. They intended to track it as a social experiment as it hitchhiked across Canada. The robot, equipped with GPS, roamed more than 10,000 miles. But a year later, a second one was vandalised and ripped apart in the Philadelphia area.

The French World War I museum — created with a private collection amassed over 40 years — is constantly seeking inventive strategies to attract international tourists from the country’s core museum hub, Paris. Although it is about a half-hour by train from the French capital, the museum has to work hard to attract about 1,00,000 visitors a year to an area where two major battles of the Marne took place in 1914 and 1918.

Since it opened in 2011, the museum has published a book designed to read like Facebook postings from the front, with comments from a young French soldier, whose clipped words are paired with historical photographs of life in the trenches and grim portraits of dead men. This year it is organising conferences and an exhibition about Americans’ experiences in the war, including those of Alabama soldiers who were part of the 167th Infantry Regiment of the Rainbow Division.

It is also the first French museum to offer guided hourlong web visits for school groups, with human guides who offer programmes in French and English. The robot is yet another tool to reach people, Le Gall said. In December, the museum, while it was closed, tested the device with a group of disabled students about 350 miles away, in Brittany. The feedback was that they liked manipulating the robot, but still missed the opportunity to touch exhibits that the museum allows to be handled.

More testing is underway. “We are in a period of experimentation and exploration, and it’s important to be connected to our world,” Le Gall said. “For a museum of our size, we have to offer something innovative.”

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