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Playing Scrabble with Victor, the Gamebot

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cmurobotics / youtube

“I have legs,” Nick says.

“My head alone is twice your worth,” Victor replies. Victor likes to trash talk when he plays Scrabble. My friend Nick does, too. Only Victor is a robot. A trash-talking, Scrabble-playing robot.

Victor will play Scrabble with anyone who visits the School of Computer Science at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Reid Simmons, a research professor at CMU’s Robotic Institute, came up with the idea for the gamebot five years ago. The goal is to come up with a robot that converses with humans naturally; Victor's creators hope the gamebot will help them do that. “We’re looking at how people interact and how changes in the way that Victor interacts change the way that people interact," Simmons says. "Does emotion [or] a move play a role in how people interact? Will they notice if Victor is happy or angry and will that affect the way that people interact?”

Playing Scrabble with a Robot

I am not a good Scrabble player. When the robot’s handler, Greg Armstrong, senior research technician at Carnegie Mellon University, directs me to taunt Victor by saying “I’m going to win,” the robot replies with “What scores are you looking at?” If he can’t think of a good response, the robot says, “Talk is cheap, silence is expensive.” Most of the robot's witty remarks were written by Michael Chemers, an associate professor of theater arts at the University of California, Santa Cruz. (Chemers also created the backstory for the robot and updates his Facebook page.)

Aside from the biting remarks—which increase in frequency when he is losing—Victor has an encyclopedic memory for the rules and immediately knows whether a word is valid or not. When Nick accidentally plays an incorrect word, Qa, Victor forces Nick to lose his turn—it's a Scrabble rule. But the bot has a bit of a pop culture blind spot: When Nick pulls ahead in the game and tells Victor that “resistance is futile,” the Scrabble-playing robot doesn't understand the Borg reference. Somebody forgot to program Victor with important Star Trek trivia.

When Victor becomes excited, his blockhead swivels and bobs a little, what Armstrong calls a “happy head bounce.” He has no arms or legs, so his head is the primary way he conducts nonverbal communication.

Simmons believes that by understanding how people interact with Victor, researchers will make robots that will better relate to humans. He thinks that robots will one day live with elderly or disabled people and help them live independently. Maybe a patient should be exercising, but isn’t listening to the robot’s instruction; should the robot get angry about it, or issue gentle rebukes? Using a game helps Simmons understand how people respond to robot "emotions."

“I want to emphasize we’re not doing this just to have a robot to play Scrabble," he says. "Scrabble is just the medium to have people come and sit down and interact with a robot for a longer period of time."

One disadvantage is that Victor can’t hear. At the start of the game, Victor tells us that he is deaf. We must type everything to him. This means Victor misses the casual conversation between Nick and me, making our comments to him seem forced (also, he doesn’t know that I told Nick that the humans have to work together against the robots). Simmons says he’s aware of this problem, but found that speech recognition capabilities aren’t advanced enough for Victor to hear.  

“The speech recognition goes down a lot and it becomes a frustrating experience,” he says.

Simmons is keeping logs of the conversations between Scrabble players and Victor to understand how players react to Victor. After working out the kinks with the game, he plans on setting up scientific experiments to see how people act if Victor plays angry all the time or acts happy when he should act frustrated.

“[We want to] see if people notice a difference … if he plays angry when he is ahead and happy when it is behind," Simmons says. "It is very easy to change that and see how it affects how people play.”

In the end, Victor and I both lose to Nick—but we're both within 10 points of him. Until next time, Victor!

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ABBA Is Going on Tour—As Holograms
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Missed your chance to watch ABBA perform live at the peak of their popularity? You’re in luck: Fans will soon be able to see the group in concert in all their chart-topping, 1970s glory—or rather, they’ll be able to see their holograms. As Mashable reports, a virtual version of the Swedish pop band is getting ready to go on tour.

ABBA split up in 1982, and the band hasn't been on tour since. (Though they did get together for a surprise reunion performance in 2016.) All four members of ABBA are still alive, but apparently not up for reentering the concert circuit when they can earn money on a holographic tour from the comfort of their homes.

The musicians of ABBA have already had the necessary measurements taken to bring their digital selves to life. The final holograms will resemble the band in the late 1970s, with their images projected in front of physical performers. Part of the show will be played live, but the main vocals will be lifted from original ABBA records and recordings of their 1977 Australian tour.

ABBA won’t be the first musical act to perform via hologram. Tupac Shakur, Michael Jackson, and Dean Martin have all been revived using the technology, but this may be one of the first times computerized avatars are standing in for big-name performers who are still around. ABBA super-fans will find out if “SOS” still sounds as catchy from the mouths of holograms when the tour launches in 2019.

[h/t Mashable]

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Cinera
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This VR Headset Promises a Movie-Viewing Experience That Rivals Theaters
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Cinera

Movies in 2017 are typically viewed one of two ways: on a big screen in the theater or from the comfort of your home. A new VR headset called Cinera claims to combine the best of both experiences. As Mashable reports, the device, currently seeking support on Kickstarter, lets viewers enjoy theater-quality home entertainment without so much as lifting their heads, let alone a finger.

Unlike other VR headsets on the market, Cinera is designed primarily for watching movies and TV shows rather than playing video games. Inside there are two screens—one for each eye—which create a 3D, IMAX-like effect. According to the product’s Kickstarter page, the picture resolution is eight times that of an iPhone and three times that of a professional theater screen. And because Cinera is all about enjoying theater-quality media in the comfort of a home setting, it includes one vital feature most VR headsets don’t have: an adjustable arm that holds up the hardware so your head doesn’t have to.

With less than a week to go in the campaign, Cinera has already surpassed its $50,000 funding goal at least five times over. Cinephiles looking for a different type of VR experience can reserve their headset for a pledge of $450 with shipments set to go out in November.

[h/t Mashable]

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