Move Over, Buck Rogers 

Robots and other marvels at DCI

"Fingers!" commands my young companion, controlling the robotic arm. At this cue, her friend pushes all five buttons at once to activate all five fingers of the arm's hand, and lo and behold, the two girls have successfully picked up a plastic ball. This is no small feat, as anyone who has ever fallen for the video arcade variety of this activity can attest. The difference here, besides the lack of coins to operate the machine, is that no plush stuffed animal will offer itself as a reward. This is the Discover Center of Idaho, and the reward is in the accomplishment of the task and in the expanded understanding of technology at work.

DCI's "Robots, Rovers and Puppets" exhibit demonstrates the functional uses of robots and reminds us that they are in use all around us in the modern world. According to a timeline posted on the exhibit (a feature that puts robots, rovers and puppets in an historical context), the word "robots" was first used by Czech author Kavel Capek in a 1921 play called "Rossum's Universal Robots." Robots were first an imagined creation, used in literature before they existed in real life. Puppets have been used since prehistoric times and in the 1600s were used as devices to communicate political dissent to illiterate audiences. Rovers are the most recent in origin and were created specifically for scientific uses, namely space travel, in the 1970s.

For the rest of the year, through January 2, 2006, visitors to the Discovery Center have the chance to experience the robot exhibit for themselves. Just past the lobby-if you can drag yourself away from the Foucault's Pendulum-you enter the red room, which has currently been taken over by all forms of robotic life.

At the Rover Table, you can build your own radio-controlled rover using a base, wheels and a motor. Here, spirited contests break out spontaneously as fellow rover-builders outrun, outsmart and outmaneuver one another. You can choose to roll over the obstacles in your way or pick them up and move them using your pinchers. Another exhibit is the mechanized puppet head, direct from Hollywood. Using a variety of knobs, you can manipulate the puppet's eyes, eyelids, head, mouth, neck, jaw and even its tongue. The clear "skin and bones" on the head allow you to see the inner workings, while all the while you imagine the creature that this could become once it goes through makeup and wardrobe.

DCI's science-based exhibits never fail to intrigue its visitors and the informal setting and interactive activities engage people of all ages as the wonders of the scientific world become tangible through the well-designed displays. The "Robots, Rovers and Puppets" exhibit lives up to DCI's reputation. It's fun to build and control these creations, and to see how they are used in the surrounding world. As with most things at the Discovery Center, it doesn't really occur to you until later that you have been learning the whole time and not just playing.

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