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Travel without moving

The school trip in the classroom

In March, two Australian schools embarked on a visit to the Landmarks: People and Places across Australia gallery at the National Museum of Australia in Canberra.

But rather than submitting hastily signed permission slips and boarding a coach for a long, tiring journey, the students simply switched on a computer and were given a guided tour of the gallery through the eyes of a large, white robot, which followed a human guide around the exhibits.

The schools were part of a trial conducted by the museum and the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO), Australia's national science agency. The robot was fitted with a 360-degree camera and students were able to click an icon to put their virtual hand up and ask the human guide a question. A screen enabled live video conversations between students and the guide was also able to pose questions to the students via a questionnaire-style interface. In short, it was as complete a tour as possible without actually being there.

"We have websites and databases that display these collections - and they are really important - but this is a fantastic glimpse of the future for public institutions," says Andrew Sayers, the museum's director.

Up to 16 users, or groups of users, can log into the live feed from the robot, with each one able to select and control a unique view of the tour.

"In the remote student's browser, the student can pan around the image and zoom in on objects of interest," explains Belinda Ward, project manager for the autonomous systems laboratory at CSIRO.

The trial was deemed a success by all involved.

"The unanimous response from students and teachers involved in this trial has been positive," says Robert Bunzli, manager of special education projects at the museum. "While it is not directly comparable to a live visit, it is very similar. Any loss of the excitement of an excursion is made up (for) by the excitement of using an advanced technology robot, live interactions with an engaging guide and the richness of the virtual environment."

Ward expects this type of experience to get even better as the technology progresses, with higher-resolution cameras, smoother delivery, clearer audio and the capacity for more users.

But Bunzli says the real advantages are here already: schools are no longer limited to the museums that are close to them. With this technology, students in India could soon tour the Museum of Modern Art in New York and children in China could browse the British Museum in London.

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