While doing some reading for my dissertation, I came across a reference in The Robot and the Garden to the Mercury Project, an art installation based out of USC in 1994-95. The Mercury Project was co-directed by Ken Goldberg and Michael Mascha, the former now being at UC Berkeley, and with whom I took a class two years ago as part of my designated emphasis in New Media.
Mercury Project combined robotics and archaeology in an interactive art installation. To our knowledge, the Mercury Project was the first system that allowed WWW users to remotely view and alter the real world via tele-robotics. Users excavated artifacts buried in a sand-filled terrarium in our laboratory in Los Angeles. All buried artifacts were derived from an unnamed 19th Century text which provided a meta-commentary on science and the Internet. Users were challenged to collectively identify this text by describing their findings and hypotheses in an ongoing Operator’s Log.
Telerobotics is controlling robots at a distance, like the Mars rovers or those remote hunting websites that were in the news a few years ago. As a side note, the main website for remote hunting no longer exists and the Texas legislature passed a ban on such activities in 2005. Lo, marginalia.
Anyway, the installation involved a robotic arm and a pneumatic puffer that WWW users could use to remotely excavate objects in a sand-filled terrarium. The buried artifacts included a watch, a pipe, a lock, and other objects inspired by Verne’s Journey to the Centre of the Earth. As they state on their webpage, “we viewed the process of discovering artifacts as a metaphor for the Internet itself. Choosing artifacts with some ‘underlying logic’ presented a challenge for collective interaction which motivated users to return to the site.” While this all emphasizes archaeology as a rather Victorian, fantastic enterprise, I’m still pretty chuffed that the first example of telerobotics on the web was an archaeologist.
For those with academic access, here’s a link to the article in Computer Networks and ISDN Systems.