Published: March 15, 2001.
Enhancing Museum Visitor Access Through Robotic Avatars Connected to the Web
Session: Seeing Differently
Access to cultural exhibits is a central issue in museums and exhibition galleries that is recently approached under a new, technological perspective. Although the cultural industries' practices in the cases of museums and cultural exhibits have remained practically unchanged for long, in recent years we are witnessing a gradual adoption of media-technologies in various aspects, such as collections archiving and digital document preservation, media- and Web-presentation, graphical animations, etc. The advent of such technologies contributes towards providing media-rich presentations of cultural exhibits and consequently offering better services to museum visitors. Lately, Internet and Web-based technologies have been employed for providing access, mostly to images of exhibited objects. With current technology such access is limited due to the non-interactive nature of pre-recorded images or videos and the difficulty in constant updating of the sites when there is change in the content. In few cases, the incorporation of higher-end technology, such as virtual reality, artificial intelligence, or robotics, is explored. Some science museums, large "edu-tainment" venues, and recreation parks have traditionally been the ones to embrace new media first, by employing fascinating and sophisticated interactive installations and presenting up-to-date results on the creative use of technology.In this paper we present such an effort, the TOURBOT project, which emphasizes the development of alternative ways for interactive museum tele-presence, essentially through the use of robotic "avatars". TOURBOT, an acronym for TOUr-guide RoBOT, represents a collaboration between museums, technology providers, and brokers of technology to museums. The overall goal of TOURBOT is the development of an interactive tour-guide robot able to provide individual access to museums' exhibits and cultural heritage over the Internet. TOURBOT operates as the user's surrogate personna (avatar) in the museum by accepting commands over the web that direct it to move in its physical workspace and visit specific exhibits. In other words, the imaged scene of the museum and the exhibits is communicated over the Internet to the remote visitor. As a result the user enjoys a personalized tele-presence to the museum, being able to choose the exhibits to visit, as well as the preferred viewing conditions (point of view, distance to the exhibit, resolution, etc).
In addition to remote interaction with the robot, TOURBOT can also act as a flexible, on-site museum guide to visitors that are physically present. By interacting with the tour-guide robot, museum visitors have the ability to individually exploit the expertise stored in the robot, which can react flexibly to their requirements. It can, for example, offer dedicated tours of specific focus to exhibitions or alternatively give overview tours. As a side effect of this concept, museum visitors get acquainted with new, cutting-edge technology by easily interacting with a complex robotic system. Therefore, technological advances are seamlessly assimilated in everyday activities.
This approach to cultural heritage access presents a high degree of novelty as well as a number of technical and conceptual issues and challenges. This paper discusses these issues while analyzing the expected benefits and expectations from visitors, the community, and the museums.