On The Road With Fred D'Ignazio
Do you have your track shoes on?
Do you have a pocketful of plane reservations?
Do you have your passport? And your international
Are you in fantastic shape? Can you withstand a
nonstop barrage of greasy airport Reubens, buttery croissants,
chocolate eclairs, and warm ale? Can you keep your feet from going flat
after walking through miles of computer and robot exhibits? Can you
remain steady after transcontinental and transoceanic jet flights,
cross-country train rides, car trips, and frantic wandering through the
You can? Good! Then you're ready to accompany me on
a whirlwind replay of my spring "on the road."
Big Bird, Blue Jeans,
On March 17th, I joined the COMPUTE! staff and jetted out to San
Francisco for the 1983 West Coast Computer Faire. On March 28th, I
still hadn't recovered from the crowd, tumult, and heady new products
introduced at the Faire. But I packed my bags and flew down to Tampa,
Florida, to make a speech at the Florida Instructional Computing
Conference. I remember asking the passenger sitting next to me, "Is
Tampa on the east coast of Florida or the west coast?"
The week after I returned from Tampa, I hopped
aboard another plane and flew up to New York to visit the people at the
Children's Television Workshop and the Children's Computer Workshop.
CCW and CTW were a treat. It was good to meet relaxed, smiling people
dressed in blue jeans and T-shirts. And big fuzzy Cookie Monster,
Kermit, and Big Bird dolls were perched on file cabinets and smiled
down from colorful posters on the walls.
(You can read about what I learned on these trips in
my July 1983 "On the Road" and "World Inside the Computer" columns in
COMPUTE!, and in my August "Computing for Grown-Ups" column in
During this phase of my travels I got to see a lot
of educational software. My chief impressions were that the software is
quickly improving and that its creators are beginning to deal with
learning in a totally new manner.
Only a year ago, educational software on personal
computers consisted almost entirely of old-fashioned "electronic
textbook" programs and drill and practice programs.
Six months later we were besieged by educational
game software, really disguised
drill and practice.
Now we are beginning to see something new. We are
seeing the first real microcomputer simulations, where the kid's
computer "pretends" it is a world or environment and challenges the
child to playact and build a face, conduct a chemistry experiment,
pilot a starship, run a nuclear reactor, solve a crime, or map out a
new world. Some of the forerunners in such simulation games include the
Learning Company's Gertrude's Puzzles;
Spinnaker's Facemaker, Snooper Troops,
and In Search of the Most Amazing
Thing; and Children's Computer Workshop's Electronic Blackboard game.
Blackboard suggests an even newer type of educational software
for children: kids' workstations - where the computer becomes a
general-purpose tool to enable children to use the computer to do whatever they want (just like
Blackboard creates an electronic "mailbox" for kids. Several
blackboards are pictured on the computer's display screen. At first
they are empty. Kids get to "borrow" a blackboard, associate their name
with it (as a mail address), and use electronic chalk to write messages on the
board for other kids to see.
If a message isn't private; you get to see it just
by calling up a particular blackboard. If, however, it is private, the
child can hide it. You can access private messages "for your eyes only"
by typing your name. It's not a foolproof security system, but it makes
a great educational activity. Kids get to practice their reading and
writing skills. And they are learning how to do word processing and
send electronic mail.
All Alone With HERO
Not long after I visited CCW, I flew to Benton Harbor, Michigan, for a
first encounter with HERO the robot, made by Heath. After Star Wars' C3PO and R2-D2,
HERO is probably the third most famous robot in America.
And he is for real.
I noticed this immediately the first time I met him.
Doug Bonham of Heath gave me some quick pointers about operating HERO,
then he left the two of us alone.
There we were, in a tiny office deep inside Heath's
giant manufacturing plant on the outskirts of Benton Harbor. HERO was
on a worktable in the rear of the office, propped up at an angle so his
drive wheel was slightly off the table (in case I told him to do
And I was staring at HERO.
What do I do first? I am itching to get to know HERO
- make him walk and talk and do other great things. But I am scared to
death that I might get things mixed up and somehow hurt him.
I realize now that I was reliving those first
anxious moments experienced by the first-time owner of a personal
computer. You desperately want to touch the machine, play with it, make
it perform. It doesn't even have to turn cartwheels or play Beethoven's
Fifth. You would be thrilled
if you could make the computer do anything.
Yet you are almost frozen by fear. What if you push
the wrong button? What if you wipe out a program? What if you damage
the machine? What if you do something foolish and silly?
I stood in the little room staring at the buttons on
top of HERO's head and glancing at the "teaching pendant" (control box)
sitting next to HERO on the table. What should I try first?
I decided that I'd try the safest thing first,
something that was guaranteed not to get me into trouble. I would press
the "3" button and the "1" button on HERO's keyboard. When HERO
received a "31" command, he was supposed to move all his motorized
limbs back to their "home" position. Surely this was a trivial and
harmless thing to try first.
I pressed "31" and was startled when HERO came to
life. His motors started buzzing, his arm rotated, his gripper hand
pivoted, his wheels turned, and his head swung from side to side.
Then it happened.
I was just starting to breathe easier when HERO's
wheels swiveled around and began banging into a metal plate. Bang!
Bang! Bang! went the wheels. HERO's whole body began to rock.
I backed off in total dismay. I glanced fearfully at
the door behind me. I was sure that Doug and his staff at Heath heard
the racket and were about to rush in and accuse me of breaking their
HERO's wheels kept banging. I leaned over and held
onto HERO's shoulders, afraid that he would rock himself off the
Then he stopped.
"Ready," he said sweetly.
"Ready?" I thought. Then, with a flood of relief, I
realized that HERO was okay. All that banging was okay. He was just
returning his wheels to their "home" position. I hadn't broken
anything. No one came into the room. They were used to HERO making
noises like that.
My confidence quickly returned. I spent the next two
hours joyfully punching buttons on Hero's head and flipping switches
and turning the dial on HERO's teaching pendant. I taught him how to
say "Hello, Fred," how to wave, and how to crash into the wall.
That last trick was not what I intended. I had hoped
that my program would activate HERO's wheels and navigate him across
the floor and out the door. I had planned for him to make a little trip
down the hall to say hello to Doug's people.
But, somehow, the door was narrower than I figured.
Or else HERO's front drive wheel was a little crooked. In any case,
when I pressed the "A" and the "DO" buttons and gave the memory address
of my little program, HERO said "Here I go," then marched right into
The Hall Of The
The day after my first encounter with HERO, I rode with Doug Bonham in
his car along the shoreline of Lake Michigan to Chicago. Doug was going
to check up on Heath's exhibit at the ROBOTS VII conference in giant
McCormick Place on the edge of the lake.
After spending several hours with HERO the day
before, I thought he was the greatest. With his computer brain and his
arm and wheels and motors and sensors, he was a complete, real robot. I
expected him to hold his own with all the other robots in McCormick
Place, since most of the robots there were not nearly as versatile or
advanced. HERO could speak, move, and had an array of "senses,"
including the ability to detect motion, light, and sound. Most of the
other robots were sightless, "dumb" industrial robots, anchored by lugs
and rivets to the floor of the factory. How could they compare with a
cute, walking, talking robot like HERO?
What a surprise!
When I walked into the mammoth exhibit hall at
McCormick Place, I was stunned. I felt like I was in a giant, dreamlike
Museum of Natural History, surrounded by prehistoric dinosaurs. Only
the dinosaurs were not dead, old bones. Instead they were alive and
they moved. And their skin wasn't a cement gray, but red, orange,
black, and brilliant yellow - all the colors of the rainbow.
This all sounds melodramatic, but it's true. The
robots in McCormick Place were huge. Their robotic arms were as long as
the neck of a giraffe, or of a brontosaurus. They appeared even taller
because they rested on top of six-foot-high metal pedestals.
And they didn't just sit there. They moved with
frightening, snakelike swiftness and grace. Their movements made them
seem alive, conscious, even intelligent. They twisted, gyrated, and
whirled in a strange, mechanical dance.
As they moved they made soft noises. Some swished,
others whooshed. Some buzzed, others wheezed. Many robots made no sound
at all. They moved their enormous arms in great, sweeping arcs. They
rotated, opened, and closed their leviathan grippers. Their arms
telescoped abruptly to twice their size, or dived to the floor to pick
up a cinder block or a paintbrush.
And they made no sound at all.
In the midst of all these dinosaurs sat HERO - two
HEROs, actually. He was the same robot as yesterday, but somehow, among
all these hulking machines he seemed very different. He was obviously
still "all robot," but now he also seemed sensitive, delicate, and
Whatever, HERO was a tremendous hit. I came back to
the Heath booth several times during the day and always found huge
crowds of people standing around the two HEROs, watching them perform,
and listening to them tell jokes.
I left the ROBOTS VII conference late that afternoon
and flew back to Roanoke. I carried with me one chief impression.
Before the conference I had thought of robots as all belonging to the
same tribe. Now I saw two tribes: the little guys, like HERO; and the
big, hulking monster robots that are taking over our factories.
Eventually we'll have robots of all shapes and sizes
in our society - not just big robots and little robots. But I think
there will still be two different tribes. Then the programming will
make the difference. Robots in the home will be programmed to be
friendly, playful, helpful, and easygoing. Robots in the workplace will
be cold, purposeful, and narrow-minded. They won't be programmed to
carry on a chat with their human counterparts. Their only mission will
be to get the job done. Both types of machines (home and work) will be
robots. But they will be two different sorts of creatures entirely.
Next month Fred and HERO go to
London, England, to teach a course on robotics literacy, and they visit
a children's educational software company. Fred also meets a computer
magician - a British teacher who creates kids' magic shows using