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Barry Art Museum Explores ‘Uncanny Valley’ in New Automata and Robot Exhibit « News @ ODU

By Amber Kennedy

In 1978, robotics professor Masahiro Mori coined the term “strange valley” to describe the feeling of unease humans feel when encountering increasingly human-like robots. A new exhibition at the Barry Art Museum will dive deep into this valley, inviting viewers to engage with automatons and robots to better understand what it is to be human.

Movement/emotion: Exploring the affect of automata on robots“, opening February 10, is inspired by the museum’s collection of historical automata. Automata are kinetic sculptures that predate modern robotics. The collection includes 19th-century porcelain dolls that appear to come to life.

The exhibition highlights how contemporary artists Elizabeth King and Joseph Morris continue the tradition of giving human qualities to clearly non-human figures. The show will also show how Old Dominion University researchers and alumni are designing robots to tap into human emotion to train and comfort people.

“Using the organizing factor of humanoid robots has allowed us to bring together a cross section of contemporary artists and scientists who explore the myriad ways in which robots evoke emotion,” said Charlotte Potter Kasic, Executive Director from the Barry Art Museum. “We are thrilled to have the opportunity to present for the first time works researched, developed and fabricated by ODU faculty and alumni for industrial applications staged alongside artistic interpretations.”

Artistic interpretations

In his studio in Richmond, King creates sculptures that look like mannequins, but move like humans. With meticulous attention to detail, King uses stop-motion photography to bring his figures to life, with each subtle gesture conveying both physical and emotional movement. She seeks to “blur the line between real object and virtual object”, according to her website.

In contrast, Morris makes sculptures he calls “emotional machines”, capturing human motion in objects bearing no resemblance to human form. Morris uses technological processes to make materials – like plastic films, electronic and mechanical parts, software and spring steels – breathe, rising with the same motion as a human chest.

In his artist statementMorris writes: “Each piece is an experience of empathy: a machine, or an object, or a sound trying to make you recognize something in yourself.

Scientific Solutions

Three robots in the exhibit built by ODU researchers and alumni use intuitive technology to address human challenges, from loneliness to bias to assessing threats.

The exhibit marks the public debut of “David’s Project,” a telehealth robot designed by Tina Gustin, co-director of ODU’s Center for Telehealth Innovation, Education and Research (C-TIER) and clinical lead of the pediatric telehealth program at the Daughters of the King (CHKD) Children’s Hospital.

Gustin met David Carey, a patient battling acute lymphoblastic leukemia at CHKD, while providing pet therapy sessions with his dog, Dharma. She mentioned her work to Carey’s father, Michael, who suggested that a robot could allow isolated hospitalized children to visit other patients or participate in playroom activities without leaving their beds.

Gustin is collaborating with Yiannis Papelis, professor-researcher at the Virginia Modeling, Analysis and Simulation Center (VMASC), to build the first telehealth robot for children. The robot is named in memory of David, who died aged 13 in 2019. The team worked with students from Governor’s School for the Arts to identify a child-friendly design, building a prototype of a approximate height of 8 -child under one year. The team hopes to begin testing the prototype at CHKD this year.

“I’d like to think that if we build this robot correctly, both functionally and visually, you’ll forget it’s a robot,” Gustin said. “I want him to be an agent of the child, and I want him to feel independent and engaged with other kids.”

Carey’s mother, Elizabeth, thinks the project has unlimited potential and could one day be used in schools or nursing homes. She envisions David’s project could provide users with a sense of control where they don’t have it and a much-needed connection. When David had rare opportunities to connect with friends or indulge his love of cycling, she saw an immediate difference.

“It gave us our child back,” she said. “He was a lifeline for the David we knew and loved.”

Robots train law enforcement, military

The robots are also used to mimic real-life scenarios faced by law enforcement. SimIS, Inc., an autonomous solutions company started by ODU alumni Johnny Garcia ’11, has created a Autonomous De-escalation Robotic Trainer (ADRT) which will be presented in the exhibition. The ADRT uses humanoid robots to train law enforcement to read dialogue, body language, and physical movement in an effort to defuse tense or potentially dangerous encounters.

Robots are also used to provide the military with realistic moving targets for training. SimIS designed Human-like targets (HTT) as mobile, trackless smart targets that can be deployed in a wide range of environments. The HTT system is semi-autonomous, capable of pre-programming scenarios that capture instant feedback for trainees. The robots have 3D torsos mounted on wheels.

Robotics offers several advantages for training, including constant repetition, saving time and money, capturing and reading data.

“With the use of robotics, artificial intelligence and data science, law enforcement and the military can create reusable environments to deliver realistic training at a fraction of the cost,” said Garcia. “I am delighted that the Barry Art Museum is featuring SimIS Autonomous Systems in the exhibition. This reflects the importance of the multiple disciplines that ODU offers its students and industries to create environments that make the world a better place. or live.”

“Motion/Emotion” was curated by Sara Woodbury, PhD candidate in American Studies at the College of William & Mary. The exhibit is presented by the George and Grace Dragas Family Foundation and Dragas Companies with support from Susan and David Goode. The exhibition advisory board includes Gustin; Khan Iftekharuddin, Acting Dean of Batten College of Engineering and Technology; Peter Eudenbach, ODU Art Department; and Petros Katsioloudis, Darden College of Education and Professional Studies.


The Barry Art Museum offers free museum admission and free public programs, including a monthly lecture series, after-hours U-Nite events, and exhibition opening receptions.

The monthly lecture series takes place on the first Thursday of each month. At 6 p.m. on February 3, the exhibition advisory committee will host a panel discussion on the conservation, research and programmatic planning of “Motion/Emotion”. Register for this free Zoom event here.

From 5 to 8 p.m. on February 11 at the Barry Museum of Art, the public is invited to the exhibition opening reception, complete with complimentary light refreshments and a cash bar. Members of the Barry Art Museum will receive a free drink ticket. RSVP is encouragedbut not mandatory.

The monthly U-Nite series takes place on the second Friday of each month. At 5 p.m. on March 11, “U-Nite: Movement and Breathing” will feature interactive demonstrations by movement and meditation specialists to encourage an appreciation of the human form. This free event is open to the public and offers light refreshments and a cash bar.

For the complete spring schedule, visit

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