John Seng’s robot proves his mettle after fortuitous fall
When Professor John Seng’s colleagues discovered he was planning a Halloween visit between his robot Herbie and a group of preschoolers, they launched into a debate. Who would win, Herbie or the preschoolers?
“They all said the preschoolers would win,” Seng said.
The professors’ hypothesis was tested when a group of preschoolers converged on Building 14 to meet and learn about the friendly robot as a Halloween treat. They eagerly gathered behind Herbie as the autonomous robot began rolling down passageways, following him along his programmed path until the moment Seng got his answer.
In the blink of an eye, a pair of little hands shot out of the crowd in the hallway and toppled Herbie who crashed onto his face as Seng ran to the robot’s rescue.
“Herbie was doing what he was supposed to do … but then he got pushed,” said Seng, adding, “Now I need to go back and tell my colleagues they were right.”
In the immediate aftermath, teachers calmed the children and regrouped for a question-and-answer session with Seng and Herbie, who was carefully carted to the gathering spot. Naturally, many of the queries revolved around the mishap.
“Herbie got an owie. Is he going to be OK?” a concerned preschooler asked.
“He’s going to need a rest,” Seng said, “but his lights are still on, so that’s good.”
“What happens if Herbie breaks?” another preschooler wondered.
“Well, I think we saw what happens,” said Seng, who added that he had been planning to give Herbie front wheels for more stability but now would expedite that project.
During a visit debrief, Seng said Herbie’s fateful encounter on Halloween could end up proving fortunate.
“Learn by Doing is the ideal way to learn, and I learned a lot,” said Seng, chuckling. “You have to test it with the best, and preschoolers are the best.”
HERBIE ROLLS ON
When Seng examined Herbie after his head-on crash, he discovered the front-facing camera that serves as the robot’s eyes had been damaged.
Luckily, Seng found spare parts to replace the device, reanimating the robot.
Further reflecting on the incident, Seng said he’s now planning to apply for grant funding so he and his students can build a trailer that will attach to the back of Herbie.
“The trailer will stabilize Herbie and also prevent kids from touching him,” Seng said. “I’m actually glad this (incident) happened.”
Herbie arrived on the scene in 2019, about 20 years after Seng built his first robot, Herbert, while an undergraduate student at Northwestern University.
With his trademark smile and googly eyes, Herbie slowly navigates the area around Building 14, avoiding hallways, walls and passersby. The autonomous robot was programmed to recognize the geography of the area so he can travel solo.
“Our department should have a robot rolling around,” Seng said. “It’s a visible sign of what we are up to.”
Herbie also serves as a goodwill ambassador, usually carrying stickers or candy pieces in the basket that attaches to the back of his head.
Computer Engineering Chair Lynne Slivovsky said Herbie’s impact on the students in her department has been immeasurable.
“Herbie has been an amazing platform for students to expand their CPE skills and expertise,” she said.
DEXTER LAWN: THE FINAL FRONTIER
The first version of Herbie couldn’t operate during sunny times, but the current version which was upgraded during the pandemic can run at all hours.
The makeover gave Herbie a body, arms, hands and head which also made him more top-heavy and likely contributed to his fall.
Besides adding a trailer in the back, a pair of wheels in the front could result in more stability, Seng said.
On campus, Herbie has been carted to classrooms, dorms and gathering spots, where greetings can sound like, “I follow you on Instagram, but I haven’t seen you in real life yet!”
Photos from Herbie’s travels are posted to his Instagram page – Hey_Herbie – which also documents his off-campus trips.
Herbie has gone to see students at Teach Elementary School and Laguna Middle School, as well as tourists at Downtown Disney and Knott’s Berry Farm. He even relayed his Christmas wish for a new battery and sensors while visiting Santa at Mission Plaza one year.
Slivovsky still remembers the day she discovered Herbie was on social media.
“It was definitely a memorable experience for me, learning that our robot had his own Instagram account,” she said.
Seng’s goal is to expand Herbie’s route to Dexter Lawn, which would put him in contact with more passersby.
The move will entail training him to navigate in that space and will require the addition of flashing lights and sounds to alert pedestrians to his presence. But Seng is excited about the prospect and said Herbie still has more to discover.
“When I build a robot, the point is not what it can do but for the response it evokes,” Seng said. “People think that it’s cool, which leads them to think of other opportunities for invention.”