Robots built to widen access to art on display at Design Indaba


Imagine Night at the Museum but instead of animals and statues coming to life, four robots roam the darkened halls — robots you could control from the comfort of your home. That’s exactly what two creatives, playing at the intersection between digital technology and interactive design, dreamt to do and the result blew the world away.

Ross Cairns and Tommaso Lanza are two of the many innovative thinkers visiting Cape Town this week as part of Interactive Africa’s Design Indaba. With over half a million visitors each year, the conference and expo has become internationally renowned for attracting and showcasing the world’s most innovative thinkers. Now in it’s 20th year, Design Indaba has yet again lined up speakers who are constantly testing the boundaries of design and technology.

Although one part interactive and another part product designer, both Cairns and Lanza love the possibilities digital technology offer designers. Their London-based company The Workers have over the last few years become known for finding digital solutions to design problems. Too often, they say, designers are too afraid to experiment with new forms of technology that pose endless possibilities.

“Digital tech is so accessible these days,” says Cairns. “Streaming video, industrial design, robots, graphic design: a combination of all these things are amazing and many people don’t realise the opportunity to combine these things.”

Cairs and Lanza speaking in Cape Town. (Photo: Design Indaba)

Having produced projects for various museums throughout Europe, Cairns and Lanza shared a love for being in a museum after hours. “There’s such a difference between being with people in a museum and being there without them,” says Lanza. “We wanted to communicate this feeling. So when the [Tate Britain Museum] opportunity came about, we didn’t think too long to think that we have an opportunity to realise a big and a little dream. We went sci-fi and made this robot.”

With the support from Tate, Lanza and Carins wanted visitors to the museum to experience art through digital innovation. So their idea was building robots fitted with cameras and LEDs that could be controlled from your computer via the internet, no matter where in the world you are. Art critics were also brought on to comment on the paintings and sculptures that the robots would stop at, giving context to the Tate’s collection and offering special insight to detail in the art.

The robots were built by the same team responsible for the Mars Rover, and the very first person to take the first robot on a spin through the gallery was astronaut Chris Hadfield, the first Canadian to walk in space. Outfitted with sensors and navigation devices to stop the robots from bumping into expensive art, the robots roamed the Tate for five consecutive nights.

Since thousands of people wanted to take control of the robots, a queueing system had to be setup to make sure everyone was given a fair opportunity to see the museum through the robot’s eyes.

“The success around it surprised us,” says Lanza who admits some people were given more time to control the robots, especially if they were good drivers. But what got The Workers more excited than anything else about the project was the infrastructure they manage to set up, running in unison and controlling four live feeds being steered by a group independent from commentators who both tried to communicate stories to the 100 000 viewers from across the world, many (like this hedgehog) waiting patiently to steer a robot:

This year Tate Britain will again be on the lookout for a similar project later this year in an effort to celebrate digital creativity through the application of technology. Lanza and Cairns have set high expectations for how technology could be used to, in future, widen access to art.



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