February 8, 2001

Bots sell SGI to Linux crowd, but may get sold on Linux

Author: JT Smith

- Julie Bresnick -

There were more than 200 booths at Linux World Conference and Expo. Some
big, some small, some with grass huts, stuffed animals, yo-yos, life-size
mascots, breasts, comedians, presenters in penguin suits (of both the
arctic and the couture kind), all trying to lure the Linux-loving crowd into
their booths to listen. I even saw a guy with a guitar, but this was the first
time I have ever seen the booth bots.

SGI hired Dulles, Va.,-based Viva Robotics to, as they say in
the trade show industry, "work their booth." Red, so named that day for the
red SGI shirt buttoned over his metal bodice, and Sprockit-T-Robot, are two
rabble-rousing robots that interact with each other as well as the
crowd that came by to see these strange and silly silicon machines. Like Dez
and Lucy, Red and Sprockit, oscilated between affection and disdain,
cajoling and harassing each other in turn.

I watched four women approach them slowly, settling in a slightly
bowed huddle, cautious but curious. All four are small and the tallest wore
a scarf over her head in Muslim-like fashion. I stood 25 yards
away next to 35-year-old Mark Moody. He wears a headset and a
fanny pack that holds the cellular equipment he uses to bring Sprockit-T (the
"T" is for "the") to life. Sprockit banters with the women for a little,
responding to questions that Moody hears over the headset. Every time
Sprockit talked, the red neon band that represents his mouth flickered in
succession with the neon blue circles that stand for his eyes. The women were shy
so Moody took things up a notch.

"Okaaay," the voice that emenated from Sprockit is Moody's given a
cartoonish bend, "I feel like a group hug, anybody up for a group hug?"
There was no response. "I'm not feeling it. I'm not feeling it. Group
huuuug!" There's a pause, "now my feelings are hurt," and all four women
descended upon the voice for a huddle.

Moody says everybody responds to the robots, that's why he started
using them in education. In 1996 he was asked to use them in a trade show at
Internet World. Viva Robotics has been a marketing company ever since, doing
several trade shows and corporate gatherings each year for big-name clients like AOL,
Arthur Andersen, and SGI, with whom they have enjoyed an ongoing relationship.

Viva has five full-time employees, all of whom have, at some point,
waited tables. Moody's partner on this day at LinuxWorld was his boyhood friend, David Lash, previously a member of a Christian rock band. Someone put a hat on
Lash's robot and it introduced itself as Harrison Forward. Lash and Moody are
witty and their established repoire translated clearly through the
machines. But Moody says its the robots that should get all the credit.

"The robots are extremely good at gathering the attention of all
sorts of people no matter social and economic lines, no matter what age."

The robots are made by Ray Raymond. They look a bit like #5, the
robot who starred with Ally Sheedy and Steve Guttenberg in the 1986 film
Short Circuit. Constructed mostly of wheels and metal poles the bulk of
the electronics is housed in a black briefcase-looking box that simply sits
like a backpack. The robots have seven wheels on the bottom, two big ones in the
middle, two in front and three in back, all functioning to make the
bots as agile as possible. The arms move slowly, bending at the shoulder, to
shake hands and make small gestures. The body is remote-controlled (necessary to reduce liability) but the head moves autonomously reacting to light and touch
and sound.

Their computer components are currently designed and maintained by
Lego Dacta, the education department of Lego Mindstorms. And during LinuxWorld, Moody made contact with a small group in the .org Pavilion called
LinAxe, an Open
Source project to further develop Linux for use in robots and autonomous
machinery. Viva Robotics is also in discussion with Speechworks and IBM Via Voice, which
released an updated IBM
ViaVoice Dictation Run Time Kit for Linux V3
last August, to add voice
recognition for simple responses.

"Group picture, group picture! Get behind me, get behind me,"
hollered Sprockit, Hollywood-style. "Hey, watch your hands, this is a family
show!" Pictures were shot with several cameras including one from the booth.
That picture was then uploaded onto a computer and an email program that lets
subjects send it to friends. Viva Robotics then takes the gathered
information and turns it over to SGI for marketing purposes.

Humor has been used to put people at ease for years, used to gain
people's attention, access their opinions, lure their purchasing power.
Viva Robotics is now looking into using the robots to take surveys but
what Moody really looks forward to doing is employing them again in
education, this time to teach technology to inner city students. As national
director for Net Generation of Youth, Moody is working in conjunction with the
office
of Congressman Major R. Owens
of Brooklyn, to develop strategies for bringing technology into his
district.

All men are not created equal, in fact, they are all as different as
can be, different colors different sizes, all likely to lure some audiences
while repelling others. That's where the robots come in, designed in
no person's image yet partnered with the personality of one, making it
possible to concentrate on the message and perhaps make inroads into areas
previously impenetrable. As Moody hosts Sprockit and Red's big adventure into the
inner cities, looks like he might be taking Linux with him.

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