Imagine a computer with no keyboard, mouse or monitor… just a space that behaves like magic. A virtual world on a tabletop with which you can interact simply by reaching out to touch, though all that you see on the table is simply projected light. The National Museums of Scotland employ just such magic in the new science and technology gallery “Connect” (opening 16 February). The gallery features an exhibit designed and produced in the Department of Electronics at York – “Robot Ships” – which uses the technology of “Video Augmented Environments” to turn a tabletop into a stretch of ocean, upon which robotic boats work together to clean up oil spills illustrating the way in which robots of the future will work together using behaviour inspired by observation of the natural world in order to solve problems. By reaching onto the tabletop, a vistor becomes part of the exhibit with the robotic boats forced to navigate around the hands of the audience and adapt to this changing environment to achieve their goal. The Robot Ships exhibit has been co-designed by OpenIllusionist project developers, and is built entirely upon the OpenIllusionist framework. The exhibit is a permanent installation at the Royal Museum in Edinburgh.
The idea behind the exhibit is to demonstrate the way in which simple, biologically inspired robots may be used in the future to solve complex tasks. In this case, the robots are similar to ants. Scout ships search the tabletop for toxic spills, and upon finding one lay a trail of marker buoys as they return to the central control rig (analogous to the ants’ nest). On their way, the scouts must navigate round any objects blocking their path. Once a scout reaches the rig, cleanup “worker” ships are dispatched. They are unaware of the location of the spill, and are reliant upon the trail of buoys left by the scouts to navigate. Cleanup ships which have found the spill collect a portion of it, and then head back to the rig by attempting to follow the same route back as they used on the way out. Any buoys they pass close to they recharge to encourage more workers to follow the same route. Any worker which failed to find the spill returns in the same way, but instead discharges any buoys passed, thus discouraging other workers from taking the same route. This is similar to the way ants navigate to food, by laying an reinforcing pheremone trails. Using OpenIllusionist oiAgents as the base for each of the ships means that the ships can’t cheat: they don’t secretly “know” where they’re heading, but instead must use the information that they can see in their limited viewing cone. This not only makes them conceptually fair, but also means that their behaviour is plausible to the audience.
Building upon the OpenIllusionist framework has allowed the museum to create a novel exhibit without investing in either expensive research and development or delicate and easily damaged equipment. The exhibit uses a ceiling mounted camera and projector, and a completely inert, normal table. The exhibit responds to the audience by literally watching them and so is not easily damaged by enthusiastic use or accidents. As the entire interface is a round table which is used by reaching over it, large groups of people of all ages can interact with the exhibit at the same time.