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This Interactive Petting Zoo Replaces Animals With Robots

The folks over at experimental architecture and design studio Minimaforms have put a very, very cool new spin on the somewhat dated, archaic concept of the petting zoo. They've pretty much cut animals out of the experience completely. Instead, they've replaced everything with robots.  

Curiously, that doesn't make the experience any less interactive - and it definitely makes it a whole lot cooler than petting a rabbit or camel. 

The project, which they've simply named "Petting Zoo," features a number of robotic 'pets' which communicate through movement, light, and sound. Though they look more like massive, fluorescent slinkies than autonomous organisms, these pets are very much aware of their surroundings. Each robot is equipped with a Kinect camera, which it uses to observe participants. They process the actions and positions of those they observe using a technique known as blob detection. By doing this, they're able to gradually map and respond to their surroundings.

According to Minimaforms co-founder Theo Spyropoulos, the mapping function "triggers the pet activity enabling the behavioral features that we have developed to engage communication and response. It does not use any other sensing devices, but mines the information and ability to understand gesture, activity, and population of participants to serve as the real-time information that it mines." 

Based on this information, the machines are capable of exhibiting a range of emotions from playful, to bored, to confused, to angry. Reach out to one of the pets, and it might unfurl to meet your hand. Ignore them, and they might either endeavor to get your attention or ignore you in kind.

"In a scenario that the pets have participants in the space that are passive and are standing watching them, they will 'perform' to stimulate engagement between the potential participants," Spyropoulos explained. "If this performance is unsuccessful in fostering curiosity, it may continue to perform or get bored and ignore them." 

Each of these pets is further equipped with a rudimentary form of machine learning which acts as a sort of memory. This allows each pet to form a series of behaviors that change based on context. It also means that the longer a pet is 'alive,' the more it learns and the more advanced its behaviors potentially become. The pets can learn either through interaction with other human beings or through interaction with each other; each pet is thus likely to evolve its own distinct 'personality.' 

Alright, I don't think anyone will argue that this petting zoo is really, really cool. But what's the point of it? What is Minimaforms aiming to accomplish with their robotic pseudo-animals? 

The whole thing is, explains Spyropoulos, something of an experiment. He and his brother are investigating how architecture can impact behavior, create new relationships, and modify how people engage with their surroundings. In other words, Minimaforms is quite literally looking to figure out how we can make artificial environments come alive. 

"We feel it is important to explore how space can operate as interface within our design environment," says Spyropoulos. "We are exploring, rethinking the potential of our architecture as an embedded spatial environment of the everyday."

 

Minamaforms was founded by brothers Theodore and Stephen Spyropoulos. The former is a world-renowned architect and educator, while the latter is an artist and interactive designer. Both have a fairly impressive portfolio of work including such prestigious institutions as M.I.T.'s Center for Advanced Visual Studies, Rutgets School of ARt, and Samsung Interactive. The two hope to use robotics and other innovative technologies to explore the frontiers of architecture.