Robotic photographer perfect for many occasions

May and June are prom, graduation and wedding months, times when the family camera gets a steaming workout.

Lewis, the photographer and robot
Meet Lewis, the wedding photographer, a five-foot tall, 300-pound red trash can look-alike, considered the world’s first robotic photographer. Lewis doesn’t crack wise as he shoots; instead, he emits high-tech whirs and hums as he goes about a room, finding faces to photograph.

Computer scientists at Washington University in St. Louis can take that camera out of your designated photographer’s hands and perch it atop Lewis, the robotic photographer.

Named after Meriwether Lewis of Lewis and Clark fame (for his traveling ways), Lewis is the creation of William D. Smart, Ph.D., and Cindy M. Grimm, Ph.D., assistant professors of computer science at Washington University, and is considered to be the world’s first robotic photographer. A five-foot tall, 300 -pound red trash can look-alike, Lewis doesn’t crack wise as he shoots; instead, he emits high-tech whirs and hums as he goes about a room, and, while as stoic as a cowboy actor, his personality can’t be any smarmier than any number of flesh-and-blood photographers. He made his first appearance in front of techies at the July 2002 Siggraph Emerging Technologies conference in Austin. He made his first public appearance and performance Oct. 27, 2002, at the Council for the Advancement of Science Writing’s annual New Horizons in Science Briefing at Washington University in St. Louis. At a fancy Ritz-Carlton reception, Lewis roamed a ballroom and took hundreds of photographs of more than 100 astonished science writers from across the nation.

Many of them took the prints, developed on the spot, home as souvenirs.

How does he do it?

Smart, Grimm and their students load Lewis with a computer not much bigger than a PC with 128 megabits of memory. They’ve programmed him to recognize humans by looking first at a pair of legs. From here Lewis will find an individual’s face by looking at skin-tone in hue/saturation space, called HSV.

Lewis uses a video camera, and searches the images for potential faces, then calculates how to frame a good picture. If a wireless Ethernet card is added to Lewis’ hardware, he can send images to a server for later image processing. Lewis’ navigation system is a single laser range finder in his front; it “pings” as he moves and because it is mounted up front, he can’t move backwards or sideways.

His navigation system uses a set number of landmarks as reference points, enabling him to figure out where he is in a given area. Presently, he only navigates flat surfaces.

Lewis needs to be oriented before he does his thing. Grimm, Smart and their students must acclimate him to his environment and program him to recognize his setting. This requisite kept him from his first celebrity photo shoot: photographing St. Louis rap star Nelly for the rapper’s birthday party last October.

“Nelly’s people contacted us and really wanted Lewis to be there, but it was too much of a short notice,” said Smart. “It’s difficult to transport him and get all the environmental coordinates down.”

Grimm and Smart envision Lewis as a pragmatic photographer for events such as weddings, reunions and receptions. He should get better with time, though the quality of his photographs now is considered uneven. So, Annie Lebowitz and Richard Avedon can exhale for now. The Washington University computer scientists, however, insist that they are not trying to dispose of the photography profession.

“Lewis has never been an attempt to build a replacement for a human photographer,” said Grimm. “Instead, he’s an example of a complex interaction task in a real-world environment. This serves as a valuable platform for research that still remains accessible to the general public.”

Grimm is director of Washington University’s Media and Machines lab. The lab was formed in the fall of 2000 ; the core researchers have expertise in vision, graphics, learning on robots, and embedded multimedia. In addition to research in their own fields, the members are also exploring joint projects that fall into the overlap between two or more fields.

Lewis is another proud addition to the robotic world, which today features robots that explore both planets and the bottom of the ocean floor, mow grass and shear sheep, patrol skies and clean floors, among many other tasks and functions.

A robot photographer has numerous advantages, Smart said.

“People actually feel less self-conscious around Lewis, once they get over his novelty and fascination,” he said. “They ‘pose’ less and interact more naturally. This lack of humanity can actually foster a good photographic environment.”