Friday, January 23, 2009

Update on the Robot Sanitorium

Feeding Rosie. That's Sweetie on a Giant Hot Dog

Written 9-21 January, 2009

Update on the Robot Sanitorium

Born of a whim (how else?), the Whimsy Kaboom Robot Sanitorium quickly became a real place. It’s my (and Sweetie’s) first big build. We’re proud of it, and gosh darn it, I’m going to brag on it.

Housed in a giant (60 x 60 x 60 meter) head of Rosie, the Jetsons’ robot housemaid, the sanitorium features a bewildering array of ramps, walk-through pipes, and buttons to push. Like any old-style sanitorium, it has a reception area with a scattering of old magazines, a medication room, a psychiatrist’s couch (where robots’ heads are shrunk with a modification of the old ELIZA artificial intelligence program), and a director’s office accessed by a mechanical lift—and there are constant reminders of the facility’s past as a robot manufacturing plant. There’s even a gift shop.

Back in May 2008, Sweetie and I started joking about a robot sanitarium—a place for psychiatrically disadvantaged robots to come for treatment. By June it seemed likely we were going to actually build it—in the sky in a giant robot head (Sweetie INSISTED on a robot head). By July the shell of the building was up. And now the sanitorium is nearly completed.

Inside, there’s absolutely no indication you’re inside Rosie’s bland blue head. The building looks like an old factory, with soot-stained bricks, dark metal grates for the floors, and dirty windows. Ramps and pipes and machinery are everywhere.

The sanitorium is chock full of robot history and trivia—a mural in the reception area is an early photo from Karel Capek’s 1921 play Rossum’s Universal Robots— and there are a thousand running jokes. Asimov’s Laws of Robotics are defaced by an anarchy symbol. “Klaatu Barrada Nikto” is spray-painted along a pathway inside a giant pipe. Posters of classic robot-themed movies adorn the walls. A wheel of medication randomly dispenses drugs such as Robothorazine and RobuSpar (well, it did until the RobuSpar people paid us off). The secure unit is named after Stanley Kubrick’s HAL 9000. As you lie on a couch, a robot psychiatrist asks if you are having problems with your motherboard. Robot-themed posters and artwork abound, and of course there are actual robots here and there (there would be a lot more if the sanitorium were on a full sim).

The fun part was thinking up gags with Sweetie and then implementing them.

The hard part was the texturing and the scripting—for, you see, the robot sanitorium is filled with custom signs and visitors can push a variety of buttons which, among other things, open the canopy (ever see the top half of 60x60x60 meter cylindrical building swing open?), operate an electromagnet that travels 50 meters along a rail and drops robot parts into a bin, raise and lower metal blinds, and activate the security system. Automated brooms, looking not unlike the self-replicating brooms from Fantasia, patrol the floors, cleaning up the oily messes made by leaky robots.

I’ve been making signs in Second Life since late 2006, but the sanitorium required hundreds of signs that followed a consistent theme and design. I learned to use the free photo manipulation program GIMP to supplement my sign-making, which until then had been done exclusively with my very early version of the page layout program Quark Xpress. GIMP also allowed me to make custom textures such as the cast iron which is used on the many pipes in the facility. Learning GIMP has allowed me to check off a long-held life goal—learning to manipulate digitalized images.

Scripting was another story. I’d been tweaking scripts for more than a year and had written a couple of simple scripts and one complex one (the one that operates my brooms), but I was still a novice with no real idea about program flow (which still confuses me). I made several trips back to study the exercises at my alma mater, the College of Scripting, Science, and Music, and I studied the code generated by a web-based SL code generator called Scratch, and pretty soon I was able to program prims to respond to voice, proximity, and collision or the presence of an avatar and interact with one another via linked messages and through chat commands. Before long I was sending messages from prim to prim within linked sets and had buttons controlling the movement of prims dozens of meters away. Woo hoo!

Last October, working within the tight pipe system of the sanitorium, I got what I can only call a case of combined SL claustrophobia, burnout, and writer’s block. I lost all desire to build, blog, or script.. I took to hanging out in welcome areas, where, amidst the usual griefing and inanity, I would hand out notecards to new citizens.

But by mid-December I was returning to my normal productive self. I built Christmas ornaments with Sweetie. After Christmas I worked on the hollow insides of Whimsy’s volcano with Sweetie—and now I’m back, hard at work in the robot sanitorium. The pipes have been completed. One set leads from a funnel on the main floor to a foreman’s office complete with Commodore 64 computer, and from there to an out-of-use hydrotherapy (well, considering the nature of the clients, petrolotherapy) room that has been commandeered by the Robot Insurgency. Another set leads to the admissions office and directs those who want to be robots to machines that will convert them. I’m now happily at work on those machines.

When we’ve achieved our evil plan of turning humans into robots, the robot sanitorium will be finished!

Except for the tweaking.

Which will, of course, never end.

1 comment:

Riven Homewood said...

So happy to hear about the Robot Sanitorium. My metalic sister, Mechariven, was created by a mad genius and suffers terrible from her memories. This sounds like it may be her salvation.