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Carnegie Mellon's creation HERB readies his pick-up lines

| Tuesday, April 29, 2014, 11:15 p.m.
Stephanie Strasburg | Tribune-Review
Systems engineer Michael Dawson-Haggerty (left), 25, of Shadyside, and Pras Velagapuoi, 28, of Squirrel Hill, attach the head of 'Herb,' Carnegie Mellon University's butler robot, in Newell-Simon Hall in Oakland on Tuesday, April 29, 2014. Herb, who earned his fame for his ability to pick up things and unscrew an Oreo, will be staring in a play at CMU on Thursday where his character's goal is to pick up a girl.

HERB might wince if critics call his theatrical debut “robotic.”

After all, HERB — Carnegie Mellon University's Home Exploring Robot Butler — and his technical team from CMU's Robotics Institute have been working for months to ensure that doesn't happen when the robot takes the stage at CMU on Thursday evening opposite drama student Olivia Brown in a closed performance of David Ives' one-act comedy “Sure Thing.”

HERB, a 4-foot, 6-inch tall, 400-pound silver robot who sports a bow tie, was designed to assist in household tasks. He picks up objects, opens and closes refrigerator doors, has microwaved meals and even unscrewed an Oreo cookie from its creme for Nabisco's cookie versus crème ad campaign last year.

Now, after months of preparation, HERB will be playing Bill to Brown's Betty in the comedy where he portrays a regular guy feeling his oats in a café setting where he tries repeatedly to pick up a girl.

Director Sam French, a senior directing major in CMU's school of drama, is working with HERB, his roboticists and Brown.

“I never thought I'd be directing a robot,” French said. “But I think HERB has a lot more comedic timing than a lot of people would expect. Human engineers and designers have figured out his moves much the same way an actor learning a role would.”

Whether HERB's pick-up lines are anywhere near as effective as his skill at unscrewing an Oreo remains to be seen.

Garth Zeglin, a research scientist in the Robotics Institute, led the technical team that has tweaked HERB's nascent acting abilities. A group of students ranging from undergraduates to post-doctoral researchers quickly gathered around the project that Katie Correll, a CMU graduate student studying entertainment technology, broached more than a year ago.

They've been rehearsing with the wheeled robot, writing code to ensure his hand and arm motions are more expressive.

They replaced HERB's clipped British accent with speech patterns modeled after a student actor.

And they've created a new voice algorithm to ensure HERB's inflections mimic those of a human speaking as his character tries again and again to sidle up to Betty with lines such as:

“Excuse me, is that seat taken?” and “I love Faulkner.”

“We can take every line and adjust the duration and pitch of every syllable. … For this performance, we're just hoping HERB doesn't break,” Zeglin said.

Debra Erdley is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 412-320-7996 or derdley@tribweb.com.

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