This week's East Bay Express features an excellent profile of my friend Ken Goldberg, artist, engineer, and UC Berkeley professor. A pioneer of Internet telerobotics, Ken was involved in groundbreaking projects like the Telegarden, Mercury Project, Demonstrate, and Mori. (Previous BB posts about Ken here, here, and here.) From the article (photo by Bart Nagel):
While most everyone in the emerging field of telepresence — the ability to experience things from a remote location — was concentrating on applying video and sound to the Internet, Goldberg was thinking about the next step. What if, instead of simply watching a faraway scenario, you could actually participate? "I could see that once you had that ability to trigger a camera remotely it wasn't too hard to move something, to actually change the remote environment instead of just observe it," he says.
Remote-controlled devices were nothing new, of course. But Goldberg was the first to realize that a robot could be connected to a Web interface as easily as a camera could. This idea was somewhat radical — robots were generally expensive, sophisticated machines, and the only people allowed to access them tended to be professionals. Putting a robot online would cede control to anyone with a modem and a mouse. As a proof of concept, Goldberg and his students began working in 1994 on what they called the Mercury Project, the world's first "telerobot." While that may sound imposing, the project was actually pretty adorable. People could log on to a live video feed of a sandbox filled with buried artifacts, all related to a certain mysterious book. Using a mouse, they could manipulate the camera and blow sand aside with a robotic device that released puffs of compressed air. After excavating tiny hidden lanterns and magnifying glasses, these cybersleuths were asked to guess which book the props referred to. In 1,200 pages of guesses, only one visitor got it right: Jules Verne's Journey to the Center of the Earth, a story chosen for its classic sci-fi-ness. But the volume of traffic attained was remarkable — Web surfing was still a new habit, after all; Netscape and Yahoo had just launched, and most people's connection speeds were agonizingly slow.
Goldberg next launched the Telegarden, a Webcam trained on a soil-filled planter ten feet in diameter. Rising from its center, like a specter from the grave, was a delicate white robot arm. This time users wouldn't simply blow dirt around: They would use the arm to plant a seed, water it, and, over the course of many months, watch it grow. Goldberg and his students conceived the Telegarden as a sly critique of how the Internet was spawning a convenience now attitude. "It was about slowing down and being a bit contemplative — you can't accelerate nature," he recalls. "We had fast computers and networks and everything was going at top speed. We wanted to hold up nature and say, 'This hasn't changed in millions of years.'"