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Robotic petting zoo replaces furry animals with inquisitive plastic tentacles

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The residents of Minimaforms' Petting Zoo aren't goats or calves, but clusters of plastic tubes that dangle from a bracket placed in a ceiling. But just like the fluffier residents of a real petting zoo, the "pets" featured in this installation react to human contact, craning their tubular bodies around as visitors to Petting Zoo — installed at Orléans' FRAC center — move around the project.

They're able to track visitors with multiple Kinect sensors, identifying human environmental context and gestures before responding in kind: sometimes with a playful wiggle, other times with an angry wafting motion. The pets are programmed using Processing, a language that allows them to synchronize their movements with each other, as well as react to multiple Petting Zoo visitors at once. People who interact with the pets are greeted with inquisitive robot stares; those who stand off are viewed as boring, and ignored.

The 'pets' can simulate disinterest and boredom when confronted with an inactive human

The design studio also use the programming to avoid what it calls "repetitive controller feedback," meaning similar human interactions won't always produce the same results in the pets. Minimaforms says that its programming enables its pets to "develop personalities" over time, enabling "intimate exchanges that are emotive and evolving." Footage from the show floor suggests it's been successful: participants reach out to touch the creations as they would a real pet, and recoil when they grow red and agitated.

Inspiration for Petting Zoo came from works such as William Grey Walter. The robotics pioneer's robot 'tortoises' — proto-Roombas — reacted to their environment to simulate intelligence. Minimaforms' pets aren't fully intelligent either, but they are both alive and unsettling enough to make us humans want to get up close to understand them.