Robotic photographer will roam wedding to take candid shots

Monday, October 28, 2002

ST. LOUIS -- Here's a new one for Miss Manners: Is it proper etiquette to take your robot to a wedding reception? What if the bride insists?

When Bill Smart goes to a colleague's wedding in a few weeks, he'll bring along Lewis, a 300-pound robotic photographer that wanders around parties, detects faces and takes candid shots.

Lewis debuted Sunday at the New Horizons in Science Briefing in St. Louis, an annual event for scientists.

Photography wasn't the end goal, said Smart, an assistant professor in computer science at Washington University in St. Louis. But it happened to be a way to combine undergraduate student projects in navigation, interaction and looking at face composition through cameras.

"With a lot of robot stuff, it's difficult to get people enthusiastic," Smart said. "We're using photography as a framework. You can't show one piece of these applications on their own."

A year ago, Smart's wife, Cindy Grimm, also an assistant professor, suggested a photographing robot as a tangible application. Students wrote the code and consulted with Smart and Grimm on problems.

Lewis stands about 4 1/2 feet tall and looks like a red garbage can on wheels. Inside, two computers no more powerful than a desktop run on four car batteries, getting from five to six hours of power each.

The red frame was custom built by a robotics company, and Smart said there are about 100 to 150 worldwide. None that he knows of takes pictures.

He estimates the project cost between $50,000 and $70,000, all from funding for his lab. Except for the occasional sonar ping, Lewis makes little noise and blends into parties.

The robot is programmed not to run into people, but someone is always within jumping distance just in case, Smart said. There are also two emergency shut-off switches.

Can't stare at you

Smart said Lewis makes the perfect candid photographer because guests relax and ignore him.

"We're very conscious of being watched. Lewis can't stare at you. Lewis doesn't have eyes," said David Laidlaw, a computer science professor at Brown University who met Lewis at a conference in July.

Laidlaw, himself a photographer, said he generally found picture quality below average.

"None of them were spectacular, none of them were perfectly framed, some of them had the heads cut off," Laidlaw said.

Lewis shouldn't be judged too harshly, Laidlaw said, because even the best photographers don't show everything they take, which Lewis does.

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