By Samuel Carrell
Most of us have taken a field trip or two to see roughly life-sized animatronic dinosaurs at the local science museum. While engrossing to our ten-year-old selves, they were little more than expensive puppets, with automated routines and metal scaffolding in place of marionette strings. Meanwhile, artificial intelligence and robotics grew ever more sophisticated, to the point where the average toy store aisle boasted more intelligence than a whole museum of rubbery thunder lizards.
It was only a matter of time before someone combined their love of robot dinosaurs with advances in A.I. and sensor-based robotics. That time has come. The T-Rex Encounter exhibit currently located at the Field Museum in Chicago offers a one-on-one confrontation with a life-sized, interactive, Tyrannosaurus Rex and her cretaceous friends.
The centerpiece is a 30 ft. tall robotic recreation of “Sue”, the largest intact Tyrannosaurus fossil specimen ever found. Sue whips her tail and roars like a respectable Rex should. But RoboSUE is not just a clanking, grinding heap of metal that happens to look like a T-Rex. She is equipped with a suite of tracking sensors, facial recognition software, and cameras in her eyes that let museum goers actually interact with her.
The T-Rex, Triceratops, and the Velociraptor-like Saurornitholestes - all products of Texas-based KumoTek Robotics – can respond to any movement that falls within their sights, from jumping to walking by. Like real dinos, they respond with roars, growls, wails, and silky-smooth movements which put yesteryear’s latex leviathans to shame.
The similarity between Sue and a real T-Rex is more than skin-deep. With a heavy skull and tail for balance, the robotic Sue features the same mechanics that a flesh and blood Rex needed to stand, run, and catch prey. A camera feed shows you what Sue sees, and the view represents the latest science on how the ancient predator’s softball-sized eyes probably saw the world.
Other than Sue, the exhibit features a Triceratops and raptor that are equipped with much of the same technology.. The Triceratops across from Sue will let out an intense wail if anyone gets too close to her recently hatched young. The raptor will screech and roar at you, and features its own touch screen to let you interact and play simple games with the model. Each unique sound is based on the best science available and reflects whether the raptor sees you as friend, foe, or food.
The exhibit is not only dedicated to the encounter you have with Sue but offers genuine insight into the behavior of the mighty Tyrannosaurus. It explains, for instance, what scientists have found regarding the Rex’s ghastly feeding rituals – Sue never chewed her food, she would widen the muscles in her throat to swallow chunks of meat whole.
It is good to see cutting-edge technology make its way into science museum exhibits. It’s no secret that many science museums are locked in a constant struggle to maintain budgets. From smartphones to tablets, kids are surrounded by high technology every day and a backlit diagram of the human endocrine system isn’t going to impress them anymore. Although pricey, cutting edge exhibits like T-Rex Encounter are just what’s needed to inspire the next generation of young scientists, and keep science museums in the black. All that’s needed to keep science museums alive is a little more science.
Where Can I See Sue the T Rex?
The original Sue T Rex skeleton is on permanent display at The Field Museum in Chicago, IL.