SAN FRANCISCO - A strange scene at Macworld: two robots roam the aisles near the Agfa booth, the big robot snapping pictures of curious passers-by while its diminutive partner anxiously tries to follow its "mommy."
Although the robots may appear to be two machines bumping into show-goers and trash cans, their "performance" is a scaled-down example of Robotic Theater, a robots-only acting troupe called Ullanta.
Most struggling actors have day jobs, and these mechanical thespians are no exception: They're hired out to promote a new Agfa product. But where they really come into their own is when they act out their creator's comic performance art.
"Everyone loves robots - put a robot down somewhere and people always stop and look," says Barry Brian Werger, a doctoral student in robotics at the University of Southern California and the man behind the Ullanta troupe. "It seemed to me we could take it further. No one has really tried to exploit the entertainment potential of robots."
To the unititiated, Ullanta's first theatrical piece, Fifi and Josie: A Tale of Two Lesbiots, may look like decorative robots scooting about to classical music. To Werger, it's an exploration of the emotional expression of two robots in love.
A sample scene from the script: "Scene 3: Paranoia. Fifi begins to act possessively of Josie. Fifi explores the pleasures of Jealousy and Possessiveness, and reaches deep into the unkind part of her nature. Josie defends herself from such ugliness as best she can."
The robots are programmed to use behavior-based paradigms and vision systems to follow certain defined objects, such as colorful strips on the robots "costumes." In their theater performances, the robots (affectionately called the "nerd herd") follow scripts that require them to perform certain tasks at certain times during the play; the rest of the performance occurs spontaneously as the robots try to figure out their surroundings. The robots can't speak, so the performances are, in Werger's words, "more German Expressionist" than Shakespearean in nature.
"It takes a lot of interpretation by the audience," he said. "...But we do try to do something with meaning."
Werger follows in the tradition of robot performance art groups like Survival Research Laboratories, and the Seemen. But though the other groups' performances tend to veer towards machine violence and supersized monstrosities, Ullanta's abstract robots perform more classical theater.
Fifi and Josie proved popular at the Robotix Festival in Glasgow in March 1997. Werger's second play, an interpretation of two Gertrude Stein poems set to disco music, was performed at a Stein festival last year. The Ullanta actors are also known to have second careers competing in the RoboCup.
Ullanta's next performance, a new play entitled Self-Made Man on the Moon, will be performed at USC, in Los Angeles, on 6 February.
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