Above It All

Cutting Edge

Trends: Video-equipped miniblimps may provide unusual info highway vantage points.

By DAVID PESCOVITZ, Special to The Times

     Late at night in an empty hallway of UC Berkeley's computer science building, a blue puffy rectangle floats quietly past the dark offices. The surreal-looking object resembles an oversized inflatable pillow or a stray party balloon, but is about 5 feet high, half as wide and rigged with quiet propellers.
      A weary student saunters into the hallway and the object, decidedly a blimp, approaches him before slowly rising to the ceiling and flying over his head down the hall. The student does a triple take.
      Inside a cluttered laboratory nearby, Eric Paulos, a 26-year-old computer science graduate student, is hunched over a keyboard controlling the blimp's motion. Through a small video window on his computer screen, Paulos sees the student from the blimp's perspective and smiles. The image is fluid and calming, like one would imagine the view of a fish to be.
      As the curious student in the hall approaches the blimp for another look, his footsteps echo from the computer's speakers. The blimp is a Web avatar--aloft, alert and online.
      "We're trying to convey the sensation of actually exploring a physical space," says Paulos, steering the blimp through the lab door and back to its home against the ceiling.
      Equipped with a wireless video camera and microphone--and steerable via remote control from the Interfacing Reality World Wide Web site--the blimp will enable anyone with an Internet connection to explore far-away environments. With a lot of ingenuity and a little helium, Paulos and his advisor and collaborator, robotics guru professor John Canny, hope tele-robotic blimps will eventually be commonplace at trade shows and inside laboratories and museums.
      The point of all this? To virtually shorten physical distances and enhance human experience. "For example, Michelangelo's David is this huge sculpture that you usually look up at like a little kid talking to an adult," Canny says. "But it would be extremely interesting to be able to see this artwork from any view without even having to make the trip to the museum."
      "Tele-embodiment," the official name for the blimp project, was born last October, when Canny and Paulos were researching methods to connect the rapid information-exchange of cyberspace with information in the real world.
      Their first project together, Mechanical Gaze, consists of an electronic eyeball mounted on a robotic arm. The arm is surrounded by objects in an art gallery, and any user logged into the Mechanical Gaze Web site is able to rotate the arm and zoom in on the objects on display.
      "Mechanical Gaze is very effective if you can fit the objects into the robot's work space," Canny says. "But there's all this other interesting stuff we wanted people to be able to access."
      The human-size blimp is the ideal mechanical proxy for remote-space browsing. While ground-based robots have difficulty negotiating stairs and move only in two dimensions, the blimp easily flies over obstacles. Unlike traditional robotic amalgamations of metal gears, wheels and circuitry, if the Web blimp happens to knock into an object or person, it simply bounces right off.
      Canny and Paulos predict that with the right commercial interest, the blimp could go to market within two years at a cost of $400--a third of the price of their first prototype. In the meantime, though, the scientists are adding features such as stabilizing mechanisms and a remote-controlled rotating laser pointer. The most exciting imminent feature is the attachment of a liquid crystal display screen and speakers so the user can be seen and heard by those who interact with the blimp.
      "We definitely don't want this thing to look like a cheesy inflatable person," Paulos is quick to note when discussing this latest application. "But facial expressions are extremely important in conversation."
      While virtual reality researchers are busy creating new environments in silicon, Canny and Paulos are exploring the physical world we already have. Their R&D agenda is simple: If you can't bring Muhammad to the mountain. . . .
      "Reality is still where the action is," Canny says. "That's where we live. We're just extending the possibilities for normal modes of human interaction at a distance."
      The two have other projects on the drawing board, including a computer vision device that would "watch" its user's placement of objects in closets or drawers for easy relocation later. But tele-robotics is still at the forefront of their imaginations, and Paulos is already scribbling down plans that will take tele-presence to the next level, where robotics could create the sensation of physical contact over the Net.
      David Pescovitz is the technology editor for Spiv (www.spiv.com), a youth culture Web site from Turner Entertainment. He can be reached at pesco@well.com. The Web blimp and the Mechanical Gaze projects can be found at http://vive.cs.berkeley.edu

Copyright Los Angeles Times