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Carnegie Mellon Introduces First Storytelling Roboceptionist

BY Byron Spice - Wed, 2004-02-18 12:00  Printer-friendly version

PITTSBURGH—Carnegie Mellon University has "hired" Valerie, one of the world's first storytelling roboceptionists, to greet visitors and set the stage as they enter the computer science building on the university campus.

Valerie is a "woman" with lots of attitude and many stories to tell. Professionally attired and carefully coifed, she sits in a specially designed reception booth in the lobby of Newell-Simon Hall, turning her brilliant blue gaze on everyone who passes by. Her sensors alert her to the presence of people and she offers assistance and directions to lost, confused or questioning visitors.

Valerie spends a lot of time talking on the telephone—just like a human receptionist. People can overhear her conversations with friends, business callers and with her parental advisor, her "motherboard." If you ask the right questions, she'll tell you about her life, her psychiatrist, her aspirations to be a lounge singer and how much she hates to date vacuum cleaners.

Valerie is the product of a two-and-a-half-year collaboration between researchers and students in Carnegie Mellon's Robotics Institute in the School of Computer Science (SCS) and the School of Drama in the College of Fine Arts. Reid G. Simmons, research professor in the Robotics Institute and Anne Mundell, associate professor in the School of Drama, have brought together an unusual mix of art and technology to create Valerie. Mundell has a special interest in computer applications for the theater. And Simmons, an expert in artificial intelligence and social robots, has been working for several years on human-robot social interaction.

Simmons and Mundell aimed to create a robot character imbued with personality that could converse and interact socially with people. According to Mundell, the collaboration has allowed the partners to look at their disciplines in new and enlightened ways and to discover some surprising commonalities. She sees work in drama and robotics as the same kind of creative process, "just developed in different languages."

"For the most part, the technology bringing Valerie to life involves building on what we've used in the past, but deploying it in a totally new way," said Simmons. "It's theater, storytelling in a way that's never been done."

Valerie consists of a highly expressive female face displayed on a computer monitor attached to a pan-tilt head on a commercial mobile robot from iRobot. A SICK laser scanner, manufactured by the Swedish firm SICK, AG, is used to detect and track people as they move around her booth. People communicate with her vi a keyboard and she responds verbally using computer-generated speech.

Mundell's expertise in storytelling and emotion combined with her students' skills in writing dialogue give depth to Valerie's character, which is programmed into the robot with software developed by Simmons and his students. Mundell and her students modeled Valerie's facial expressions while Simmons and his students' software put a moving muscular structure underneath them. The fine arts students' expressions and dialogue are incorporated into Valerie using robotics software.

Valerie's life is written like a soap opera with four story lines—therapy, lounge singer, work and social life. Each has 10 episodes, which rotate periodically. Valerie's Web site, www.roboceptionist.com, details everything about her life, including the family photo album and videos of her in action. Current photos of Valerie can be accessed from the Web site.

"It's a wonderful collaboration," said Simmons. "Right now, we're building up things Valerie can talk about and giving her the ability to remember people." Today, he noted, people have to swipe an identity card for her to remember them. Face-recognition technologies are not at the point where they can be used. But once she "knows" you, she'll wish you happy birthday and avoid telling you stories you've already heard.

Valerie was developed with the support of SCS Dean Jim Morris who had to sign off on some major changes to Newell-Simon Hall to accommodate Valerie.

"We've wanted a robotic presence in the computer science building for nearly 10 years," said Simmons, "especially since we're now focused on human-robot social interaction. At the same time, we wanted to make Valerie interesting to the inhabitants of the building. To keep her interesting, we thought she should be a storyteller."

Future plans include incorporating speech recognition, computer vision and machine learning to enable Valerie to act like a truly social being.

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Byron Spice | 412-268-9068 | bspice [atsymbol] cs ~replace-with-a-dot~ cmu ~replace-with-a-dot~ edu