Robot Revolution at the Denver Museum of Nature & Science

robot revolution dmnsIt’s not news to readers that I’m a big fan of the Denver Museum of Nature & Science and find myself there for every new exhibit and sporadically just drag the kids there for a fun afternoon of hands-on and exhibits. Sometimes it’s me and my friends – as with the recent Chocolate exhibit – but with robots in the mix thanks to the new Robot Revolution exhibit, I brought along family: My sister, visiting from far away Alaska, and my girls.

There are two levels of special exhibits at the Museum, those that are free with admission, and those that require an additional ticket and, often, a timed entrance slot too. Most exhibits travel from museum to museum, but the most elaborate can involve hundreds of hours of assembly and lots of hands-on management by the Museum staff and volunteers. In a nutshell, the additional ticket exhibits are some of the most interesting material that ever shows up at the Museum. Chocolate was good, but the previous additional ticket exhibit, Sherlock Holmes, was excellent and my girls still talk about its hands-on detective theme.

But Robots. How interesting is that going to be? Turns out it was super interesting and the exhibit, with the underwriting of Google.com, had lots of fascinating and mostly hands-on exhibits, letting you find a robot that’ll mimic your facial expressions, a robot that could challenge you to tic-tac-toe, and another one that played a quick hand of blackjack!

I’m pretty steeped in modern tech so I’d seen a number of the different robots, or devices quite similar to them, but there were still some surprises to me too, including the da Vinci Surgical System robot that could perform operations and the fact that it’s already done over 2 million operations in the field!

The PARO robot in the shape of a baby harp seal was a technology application I’d seen before, but it was really interesting to watch people’s reaction to a toy that reacted realistically to physical touch, seeming very much alive. They were a bit freaked out by it, but the appearance of robots is a huge discussion and the very binary “look like a human” or not philosophies were very much in the forefront of the exhibit.

But enough talk. Some photos!

girls looking at EMYS facial expression mimic robot

This first photo shows my daughters quite engrossed by the EMYS from Wroclaw University of Technology, Poland: It’s a facial recognition system that mimics your own facial expressions. Quite a highlight for my girls and my sister was also proud of being able to get it to go bug-eyed when she mimed extreme surprise as a facial expression!

ZJUNlict soccer robots - DMNS

A big hit with the crowd were the Soccer ‘Bots from Zhejiang University, China: two of these little units were on each team and here you can see the goalie and defender did a solid job of stopping the little orange ball going into the goal. Surprisingly lively, though I was really wanting to see 3-on-2 offense as it was clear that 2-on-2 led to a pretty static game.

Still, a hint of the 2060 Robot World Cup, for sure!

Yaskawa Robotic21 System, DMNS

Another game: a rather creepy looking blackjack robot used suction cups on its “hands” to pull and deal cars from the deck (behind it, on the left) to allow three players to compete with it, and used image recognition to figure out what cards each player had and who won each hand. Cool and I definitely got the impression that they programmers had slowed this robot wayyy down to make it seem more human.

Then there was the Rubik’s Cube robot:

rubick's cube solving robot arm

This was a popular exhibit too: visitors could pull out the Rubik’s Cube, mix it up, then put it back in the drawer for the robot to pick up, analyze, map out a solution and then solve. Having seem some lightning fast robot cube solvers on YouTube, this exhibit was a bit of a disappointment with its long lag time between solution steps and would have been much more impressive if it could do the physical manipulations faster (though once it mapped the sides it took under two seconds to work out a complete solution).

And another game:

Baxter tic-tac-toe robot, DMNS

This Baxter tic-tac-toe robot demonstrates what I was talking about earlier about the efforts to anthropomorphize robots with its flat panel “eyes” that shifted to indicate which of the two games it was working on. Of course, the eyes were a feedback mechanism, not an input device, so it could easily have been solving both games simultaneously.

overview, DMNS Robot Revolution exhibit

In this photo the exhibit area looks pretty empty, but that’s because the really popular exhibits like the hands on “Tinker Tank” were further away from me. It really was pretty darn busy.

And speaking of the Tinker Tank…

enjoying the 'tinker tank' at the robots revolution exhibit, dmns

My girls enjoyed using the various metal and plastic components to “build a circuit” that connected a power source to a fan. Fun, hands-on play.

Meanwhile, I was impressed with the informative video from Velodyne about its LiDAR image recognition system integrated into the Google self-driving autonomous cars (supplied by Lexus, apparently robots are skipping the cheap cars in favor of luxury!)

velodyne lidar mock-up autonomous cars

In this particular image, you can see how the vehicle has to create a live model of everything around it. Particularly interesting given that I live in bike obsessed Boulder, Colorado was how it understood bicyclists as a different type of vehicle and recognized hand signals as a warning that the bicyclist was poised to change lanes. Good, because otherwise bike vs robot is going to end badly!

We quite enjoyed the Robot Revolution exhibit at the Denver Museum of Nature & Science and I encourage you to check it out with your kids. If they’re the tiniest bit into technology, they’ll be pretty darn impressed with the range and smarts of the ‘bots in this exhibit!

Disclosure: DMNS supplied my family and I with complimentary tickets to the exhibit so I could write about it. But I would have gone anyway!

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