A Night At The Museum ... With Robots

Aug 16, 2014
Originally published on January 30, 2015 8:39 am

There are four robots roaming around the Tate Britain museum in London. Since Wednesday night, they've been roving the halls after hours, streaming video to the world as part of the After Dark project.

As the robots move through the museum, their little lights illuminate hundreds of statues and paintings — works of historic and contemporary British art — spread over roughly 20 rooms.

If it's not cool enough to have robots making their way around a museum in the dark, there's another cool factor: Regular people all around the world are controlling their movements from their computers.

"[The robots] have controls navigating around the gallery. They can go forward, left, right, tilt the head up and down, look around," says David Di Duca, one of the project designers. He's with a digital design studio called The Workers. They received the Tate Britain's IK Prize, which awards a group that uses digital technology to bring the museum's collections to a wider audience.

"When someone's controlling the robot, they're effectively curating the feed or the experience for a much wider audience."

That means anyone, anywhere, with access to the Internet can be a curator. Every night since Wednesday, people have been able to visit the site and fill out a simple form for a chance to take the robots for a spin. What's more, the event also offers a chance to reach people who may never visit the museum. People from all over the world can log on for the robots and stay to explore 500 years of British art.

Art experts and gallery guides are working in shifts to provide commentary throughout the night.

One potential challenge, though: When you are sending robots into galleries at night and letting people remotely take the reigns, how do you make sure the precious artworks don't get ruined? Di Duca says there are a lot of precautions in place.

"The robots are designed with a wide lower base, and the outside edge of that is a kill switch, which takes out the power to the robots. Some artworks are directly on the floor, [so there's something for the robots to hit] in that worst-case scenario."

There are also humans behind the scenes if something goes wrong. Ross Cairns, one of the founders of The Workers, is also working on the project.

"We have a sort of HQ in the dungeons of the Tate where we're just making sure everything's running well, while upstairs in the gallery the robots are roaming free."

Di Duca says that generally things have been running smoothly. Some of the best moments are when two of the robots actually meet each other in the gallery.

"They sort of look at each other," he says. "And you have no idea who the two people controlling them are, and they're never gonna meet each other, but they're, for some split moment, staring at each other with these funny robot faces in a gallery in London."

If you want to see artwork, Di Duca still thinks the best way is to actually go to a museum. They're not trying to replace that experience.

"It's meant to be something else — some experience on its own right which allows you to see things in a way which hasn't been seen before."

There's still time. You can watch the live feed and maybe even get lucky enough to take control. You can still get involved here. The last tour will go until 3 a.m. GMT Monday.

Copyright 2015 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

TESS VIGELAND, HOST:

You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR West. Arun Rath is away, I'm Tess Vigeland. As I speak, there are four robots roaming around the Tate Britain Museum in London. They're about 4-feet tall with an oval shaped base and two slender gold polls leading up to a black box with two little lights and a camera. And since Wednesday night, they've been roving the museum hall, after hours, streaming video to the world. NPR's Priska Neely reports.

(SOUNDBITE OF TATE BRITAIN'S AFTER DARK)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Hello to everybody who is taking control of the robots and everybody else who's listening to us this evening.

PRISKA NEELY, BYLINE: This is audio from a live stream of the Tate Britain's After Dark project. As the robots move through the museum, their little lights illuminate hundreds of statues and paintings. Works of historic and contemporary British art spread over roughly 20 rooms. If it's not cool enough that the robots are there in the first place, there's another cool factor - regular people all around the world are controlling their movements from their computers.

DAVID DI DUCA: They have controls for navigating around the galleries. So go they can go forwards, left, right, tilt the head up and down, look around.

NEELY: David Di Duca is one of the project designers.

DI DUCA: When someone's controlling the robot, they're effectively curating the feed or the experience for a much wider audience.

NEELY: Much wider as in anyone, anywhere with access to the Internet. Every night since Wednesday, people have been able to visit the site and fill out a simple form for a chance to take the robots for a spin. Behind the project is a digital design studio called The Workers. They won a prize from the Tate Museum to put this together. Besides the cool factor, it's a chance to reach people who may never visit the museum. People from all over the world may log on for the robots and stay to explore 500 years of British art. There's commentary from art experts and gallery guides along the way.

(SOUNDBITE OF TATE BRITAIN'S AFTER DARK)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Kind of contemporary, isn't it?

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: Yeah, it's quite a modern painting.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: It's almost like a photograph.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: And she's quite feisty, I think.

NEELY: They're working in shifts in the middle of the night. So when you send robots into a museum at night and let people around the world take the reins, how do you make sure the precious works don't get ruined? David Di Duca says there are a lot of precautions in place.

DI DUCA: The robots are designed with a wide lower base and the outside edge of that is a kill switch, which takes out the power to the robots. Some artworks are directly on the floor and so we have to put barriers around them so there's something of a kill switch to hit in that worst-case scenario.

(SOUNDBITE OF TATE BRITAIN'S AFTER DARK)

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: Wow, we're being blinded there by Steven's robot.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Robot three is on the move.

NEELY: And there are humans behind the scenes in case something goes wrong. Ross Cairns is also working on the project.

ROSS CAIRNS: So we have a sort of HQ in the dungeons of the Tate where we're just making sure everything is running while upstairs in the galleries, the robots are roaming free.

NEELY: David Di Duca says things are generally running pretty smoothly.

DI DUCA: Some of the best moments are when two of the robots actually meet each other in the gallery and they, you know, they sort of look at each other and you have no idea who the two people controlling them are. And they're never going to meet each other, but they're, for some split moment, staring at each other with these funny robot faces in a gallery in London.

(SOUNDBITE OF TATE BRITAIN'S AFTER DARK)

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: So we got two images of the Stack there, robot two and robot four. Oh, wow, maybe the two robots are going to meet.

NEELY: Di Duca says the best way to enjoy art is to actually go to a museum. They're not trying to replace that experience.

DI DUCA: It is meant to be something else - some experience on its own - in its own right - which allows you to see things in a way which, you know, it hasn't been seen before.

NEELY: You can watch that live feed right now at the After Dark website and again tomorrow evening, and maybe even get the chance to take control. Priska Neely, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.