When guests walk into museums they expect to be surrounded by items and works of art that are meant to be admired from a distance. However some museums, such as The Smithsonian Institute, are embracing technology to give their guests a way to engage more deeply and in unique ways. Indeed, you just might be greeted by a robot instead of a human next time you enter. Kristi Delich, deputy director of the Office of Visitor Services at the Smithsonian Institute was recently on the AI Today podcast to talk about the use of AI in a museum setting. (Disclosure: I’m a host of the AI Today podcast).
SoftBank Robotics Pepper robot(Photo by Joan Cros/NurPhoto via Getty Images)
NURPHOTO VIA GETTY IMAGES
Museums, especially of the Smithsonian variety, provide a dual role: active research into areas of specific interest, and educational opportunities for the public with goals to expose and improve knowledge. Part of achieving both of these goals includes bringing new and innovative experiences that make the offerings of the museum more accessible, informative, and entertaining. The Smithsonian constantly looks to bring on board a variety of technology and approaches to help enhance the guest experience.
Enhancing the visitor's experience
In the past few years, the Smithsonian Institution became aware of Softbank Robotics’ Pepper robot. Pepper is a humanoid robot that stands 4-foot-tall and has the ability to perceive and interact with its surroundings. Using the recognition pattern of AI, Pepper is able to sense when a visitor is close by and then engage and interact with them through the conversational pattern. After some research and experimentation, six Smithsonian venues deployed the Pepper robots in a trial program. The program was aimed to test how robot technology would enhance visitor experiences and educational offerings.
In the beginning Kristi Delich and her team didn't know much about Pepper’s capabilities, but it quickly became apparent that Pepper is a great fit for what the museum is trying to accomplish. In just the short time that Pepper has been in the museum, it has made a big impact on enhancing overall guest experiences. The Smithsonian quickly found out that robots that can engage the general public can handle well many of the hospitality and customer service aspects of a visitor’s time in the museum. This allows guests to get their needs met and allows workers at the museum more time to spend focusing on more complex or interesting tasks.
One of Pepper’s major influences has been in its interactions with customers and how it is able to engage customers who are of different age groups, especially children. Kristi notes that one of the most interesting interactions that people seem to have with Pepper is when they first approach the bot, they typically start off standing further away because they aren't exactly sure how to interact. However, since Pepper is activated within a 3 foot proximity, it requires and encourages close proximity for full engagement. Pepper is also great at engaging people in conversations by encouraging people who are not entirely sure how to interact with certain types of exhibits or displays to ask questions that they may not otherwise be comfortable asking someone. In this way, Pepper is able to enhance the overall experience in the museum and help direct guests to under visited exhibits.
Pepper is able to provide customized visitor engagement with artwork and artifacts and give docents and museum educators new tools to engage with many visitors. Pepper is able to answer commonly asked questions or tell stories, and also has an interactive touch screen. Additional perks include the fact that Pepper also dances, plays games and poses for selfies. This offers a playful and non-threatening experience for guests, and as a result, often attracts a crowd.
How the use of robots and their impact is being measured
The Smithsonian found that, on a whole, guests have a positive experience with Pepper. In fact, the organization found that attendance to the National Museum African American History and Culture museum’s Rosa Parks virtual reality exhibit doubles when Pepper is present. Pepper is able to introduce visitors to the activity as well as keep guests moving by managing the line. At the National Museum of African Art, Pepper is able to translate Kiswahili phrases for guests as well as help visitors learn how to say certain phrases.
One of the major desires that Smithsonian has for the future of the Pepper robot is to get it to a point where her speech is more natural to the user. Currently, the range of conversation is limited, and therefore requires continuous programming and updating. The museum is also quickly realizing how great Pepper’s potential is when incorporating other forms of AI or augmented intelligence within the museum setting. By utilizing these other technologies such as other audio-visual systems or mobile applications, Pepper can enhance those technologies to give guests a truly customizable experience every time they walk into the museum based off of their personal interests.
Currently, Pepper is only in a few of the Smithsonian Institute museums, but the future goal is to have Pepper available in a wider expansion throughout all of the properties. Overall, Kristi is extremely optimistic about the potential of using artificial intelligence such as Pepper in areas like museums where this application has not been widely discussed or explored as of yet. The future of AI in these sorts of settings could greatly open up the experience for everyone who walks through the doors of such institutions.