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Play robot moves effortlessly between real and virtual worlds

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November 26, 2010

MIT's Media Lab has come up with an interactive play learning environment for kids, which ...

MIT's Media Lab has come up with an interactive play learning environment for kids, which blurs the walls between virtual and real worlds

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In an increasingly tech-centric world, keeping kids interested in learning can be an uphill battle. With teaching that involves play recently attracting some powerful supportive voices, students from MIT's Media Lab have developed a system which merges technology and play to stimulate young minds. The Playtime Computing system uses infrared emitters and tracking cameras to monitor the position of a special robot within a play area. As the bot disappears into a hole in a panel, it appears to continue its journey into a virtual world projected onto the walls.

The Playtime Computing system developed by MIT Media Laboratory's Personal Robots Group is aimed at children between 4 and 6 years old and allows them to get up and about instead of sitting around and getting bored, a hot topic at the moment given Michelle Obama's Let's Move campaign. It also allows for early experimentation in such things as symbolic reasoning and social roles.

As Alphabot passes through a hole in the display panel, it appears to continue its journey...

The system is made up of three panels with projectors behind them, and a set of four ceiling projectors for sending images to the play area floor. Alphabot, a cube-shaped robot with infrared emitters at its corners, is tracked by ceiling-mounted cameras. A virtual landscape is projected onto the panels and floor to blur the barriers between reality and the artificially-created world. To further add to the illusion, as Alphabot disappears into a hole in the panel and some robotic foliage closes behind, the image projected onto the panel appears to show it continuing its journey into the virtual world.

A set of RFID-tagged wooden alphabet letters or symbols such as musical notes was also created so that the children can stick them onto Alphabot's face. Placing letters onto the bot results in its face changing color to match, with musical notes causing music to be played through its onboard speakers. As the robot disappears into the virtual world beyond the panel, the symbol placed by the kids will also continue through to the animated version.

International playtime

The fun needn't stop with just one play room, however. “One of the things we're really excited about is having two of these spaces, one here and maybe one in Japan, and when the robot goes into the virtual word here, it comes out of the virtual world in Japan," explained the group's Adam Setapen. "So that kind of fits in with that one-reality concept, that there's one robot, and whether it’s physical or virtual is based on the state of the robot in the Playtime Computing system.”

Of course, kids being kids, the young prototype testers crammed lots of different symbols onto the bot, which it wasn't developed to handle. They also expected other objects placed in the hole to appear on the screen. Future developments of the system may well take such things in stride, with children perhaps being able to send a favorite toy into the virtual world.

Maybe it would also be interesting to see how they would deal with a digital twin!

The cube-shaped Alphabot has infrared emitters at its corners so that the Playtime Computi...

Another aspect of the system is the Creation Station, a table-top computer where youngsters can arrange objects or draw pictures. Whatever is on the Station is recreated on the panels via the projectors.

The researchers also kitted out the playful system testers with baseball caps sporting infrared emitters. This allowed the system to keep track of the kids as well as the Alphabot, which could make it possible for such things as interaction with the computer animated robot in future versions. If the team can develop the system to operate using something like Microsoft's Kinect gaming technology, then players could be tracked without having to rely on infrared clothing.

The team says that the current prototype was put together using off-the-shelf parts at a cost of just a few hundred dollars, and believe that mass production for home use is a viable possibility.

About the Author
Paul Ridden While Paul is loath to reveal his age, he will admit to cutting his IT teeth on a TRS-80 (although he won't say which version). An obsessive fascination with computer technology blossomed from hobby into career before the desire for sunnier climes saw him wave a fond farewell to his native Blighty in favor of Bordeaux, France. He's now a dedicated newshound pursuing the latest bleeding edge tech for Gizmag.   All articles by Paul Ridden
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