Path finder

A continued investigation into the path finding characteristics of the Viberbi algorithm.

I took a altered Roomba Vacuum Cleaning Robot (RVCR) to two locations within lewisham shopping centre to test its operation within a public environment. There were no alterations to the cleaning algorithm as I was avoiding any programming or electronics. I wanted to get some insight of the nature of algorithmic pathfinding in relation to the Viterbi algorithm and peoples reaction to a physical autonomous entity. Thinking in terms of black box technologies I had given the RVCR a security style aesthetic where a rectangle of black metal acted as a platform to which I mounted a technical looking black box and an obviously consumer grade video camera mounted at the front. The black box served no electrical function though it did act as a counterweight to the camera which on its own tipped the RVCR forward preventing any movement. The effect was very crude with elements covered and held together with black gaffer tape with any visible brand names covered with black electrical tape, so my assumption was that any close inspection would dispel any idea that this was a 'real' security device. I also presumed that because the RVCR itself was still clearly visible it might be recognised as a vacuum cleaner.

There was an expectation amongst all of us (myself, Anila, Charlotte) that security would ask us to leave as soon as they caught site of the device. We wanted to avoid this eventuality for as long as possible by selecting an initial location away from the central hub. We chose a position by a cafe with some outside seating which we thought might provide some interesting obstacles for the RVCR and provide likely interaction with the public. We simply placed the RVCR in a clear location surrounded by shop entrances and the cafe and set it going. Initial fears about the RVCR moving too fast were unfounded as what had seemed like a frantic pace within the closed environment of the goldsmiths lab at Laurie Grove, seemed very slow and methodical within the much larger space of the shopping centre.
It instantly grabbed peoples attention drawing a small crowd of onlookers. We attempted to blend into the background, observing peoples reaction, distancing ourselves from its operation. One of the first comments I heard was "who's controlling it?" and lots of people looked around, I presume for evidence of a remote control. A small child got very interested and started to follow the device his mother initially looked concerned but eventually let the child play. As people passed they would stop and point, mostly looking like they were amused, though one mother with a pram was annoyed as the RVCR got in her way.
While the device was operating in open space and didn't encounter any obstacles, its path seemed random where it would travel in a straight line then turn at seemingly arbitrary intervals. This caused great delight with the child and gave the impression that there was human intelligence behind its control that a controller was playing with the child and the general public. A number of times, after criss-crossing the open space for around 4 minutes the RVCR would stop. This may have been due to its algorithm 'giving up' as it was receiving no 'bump' sensor input. The data space provided by sensor inputs may have been deemed uncomputable. Each time the RVC stopped I would walk over and reset it which gave some members of the public opportunity to make connection between the device and myself.


The RVCR eventually bumped into a wall where it develop a different navigational aesthetic as it rapidly performed a sequence of bumps and turns as it hugged the line of a wall, making its way to the entrance of a clothes shop. At this point it didn't look like it was under human control as its movements were more insect like, more threatening even. As it got closer and closer to the entrance we had a brief discussion that perhaps we should stop the device entering the shop (we decided not to) though it eventually stopped at the shop entrance of its own volition, where a young man had stopped to photograph it, a shop assistant was laughing at it and an older man in his 60's had stopped to observe. When restarting the RVCR it made its way deep into the shop at which point the shop manger politely asked us to remove it.
Each person outside the shop had thought the device was controlled by the shopping centre security, though the shop assistant had seen a camera bag over my shoulder so had made a connection that it might have been me controlling it. They were all surprised when I told them it was a camera on top of an automatic vacuum cleaner. A spoke with the older man for a much longer period of time and he eventually stated that he liked the idea of robotic security devices and that he would like to see more of them as they made him feel safer, he also saw opportunity for this standard device to be covered in different form factors so as to provide alternative services, though he never specified what these services might be.
We took the RVCR to a new central location in the shopping centre outside a sports shop and not too far from an information desk. This location was more compact that the previous area, more like a corridor. The device quickly discovered walls and methodically made its way one edge. It would periodically cross the corridor towards the open front of a shop, never entering more than 1 meter. It did not look like anybody had seen us place the device on the ground so were able to maintain anonymous observation. A shop assistant quickly spotted the RVCR and was immediately concerned. Its movements within that context seemed more threatening, perhaps due to the smaller space, speed and aesthetic of movement.

The shop assistant called over three other assistants repeatedly asking the what it was eventually calling over a security guard. At which point I moved to pick the device up. We were told that we should have asked permission to use the device and that the shop assistant was worried that it "could have been anything" which i took to be a reference to a bomb. The security guard then left and called over a police woman who asked us to explain what we were doing. I gave her full details of the project at which point her eyes glazed over and she said that we needed to ask permission to do anything like that. XHTML 1.0 Strict CSS2 WAI