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Monday, July 11, 2005

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My name is Reid Van Lehn (I'm the guy showing Minsky how to ride a Segway in the picture below) and I am currently a summer intern working on the CM-Balance (i.e. Segway soccer) project at the CMU Robotics Institute. This fall, I will begin my freshman year at MIT, though I am currently undecided regarding my major.

As you can imagine, this was one of my first conference experiences. As the only member of the Segway team in possession of a minivan, my day started by loading a 250-pound autonomous soccer playing Segway into the back of the van (along with Brenna Argall and Yang Gu, two graduate students working on the project) as well as a human transporting model and some spare parts. I then carefully navigated to the conference, trying desperately not to break any of the sensitive electronics by rolling over a bump. Also, I didn't want to break Yang, who was sitting on the floor in the back with the Segways.

Upon arriving at the conference and smooth-talking my way into some free parking while we unloaded, I was treated to the sight of a multitude of other robotics teams hurriedly making last minute preparations for their own demoes. Since Brenna and Yang were busy calibrating the robots, I was told that I could leave for a few hours and return when the demo started, since I didn't have much to do. Since I was more than a little worried about my parking spot, I opted to head out for the afternoon.

Around 4:00, my phone rang - Brenna was on the line, and I began to get my first taste of what demoes are really about. Apparently, the Segway's vision wasn't working properly; since this was imperative in tracking the soccer ball for the demo, we had a pretty big problem. Hence, I hurried on down to CMU, grabbed some white painter's dropcloths, and returned to the conference (legally parked this time). The idea was that the dropcloths would provide a uniform background for the Segway's vision, thereby making the ball easier to identify.

Time wore on. It was now getting to be around 5:00 or so, with the demo set to begin at 6:00. It was around then that Yang made the realization that the camera itself was damaged, and we had no replacement with us. Uh oh. We had but one hope: lead developer Brett Browning, who was coming to supervize the demo. Brett arrived like Superman, coming to save the day in his attractive mid-sized sedan. He brought a couple of cameras scavenged from other robots, and Yang and Brenna set to work re-calibrating the vision. Time continued to tick by...

6:00 now. People were starting to flood the floor, as the demoes were all set to begin; unfortunately, the autonomous Segway was still dead in the water. I was getting a little nervous, since my own knowledge of the specifics of the project is a bit shallow. Since Brett, Yang and Brenna were pretty busy at the moment, however, I began to describe the basics of Segway soccer to a few interested onlookers. My confidence grew as I spokie to more people, explaining our implementation for robotic vision, the rules of the game, the way our skill system works, and so forth. I discovered that most people were content with just vague descriptions; those that desired more information were directed to Brenna.

After a few minutes, Brett shouted a few fateful words in my direction - "Reid - ride the other Segway around for a bit so people notice us." This is when things got more interesting for me. I had ridden a Segway only once in the past (strangely, over the last few weeks since I began work on the project, I had never thought to try it out in my spare time), but I quickly got the hang of it. Soon I was zooming about and attracting amused spectators. I quickly began to demonstrate just how easy it was to ride the contraption, and this also gave me the opportunity to explain more about our project. Hours passed, and I began to go into greater and greater detail about what we were doing. The Segway rides certainly did a wonderful job of attracting spectators, many of whom then became interested in our project.

Meanwhile, the autonomous Segway still sat dead in the water, as the new cameras Brett brought turned out to inoperable. Murphy's Law certainly held true on this day - and I was assured that such was the norm for demoes. Hopefully, we'll be able to have everything up and working for our return on Tuesday, where we can finally show the autonomous Segway's capabilites as well. I look forward to the experience as yet another opportunity to offer Segway rides and meet many new researchers at the same time. Hence, I would deem my first demonstration experience an interesting one, as I learned the inherent difficulties that accompany any attempted demo.

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