Upon our arrival at Storyscapes, the Tribeca Film Festival’s transmedia showcase, we made straight for the table covered with cardboard cutie-pies, the automaton-cinematographers of Robots in Residence.
“It’s the first documentary film done entirely by a robot,” explained Tina Davar, who works with Blabdroid, the group behind the project. “Robert de Niro was here earlier filming, and Whoopi Goldberg.”
The exhibit (organized in collaboration with Bombay Sapphire; one wall in the back featured endlessly looping commercial) was a loose collection of projects that involved some sort of audience interaction. In one corner was Star Wars Uncut, which let you pick from an enormous collection of fan-made recreations of the original trilogy. A brief perusal turned up a cartoon version, a puppet version, and best of all, a vegetable version. In another corner was Sandy Storyline, a “participatory documentary” inviting New Yorkers to submit their own recollections of the hurricane.
But everywhere we turned, we saw the tiny, cheery robots.
“Are you taking our new friend out for a drink?” one person asked a pal standing in line at the bar, a robot under-arm. “You know what it reminds me of?” a sleek man in a blazer asked his friends, waving around the robot at eye-level. (We never heard his answer.) Another visitor had retreated to a quiet table with his and crouched over the droid, having what looked like an intense heart-t0-heart.
How the project works: The organizers have a seemingly endless supply of the smiley devices, which festival-goers can borrow for two hours at a time. You turn it on and, in the voice of a seven-year-old, the mechanical creature interrogates you with questions like, Who do you love most? Why do you love the person you love? What would you do if there were no laws?
Answers are recorded and saved on an SD card inside, which you can see if you flip up a robot’s head and expose his guts. (It’s creepy; we don’t recommend it.)
The project is based on the idea of the “Eliza Effect,” which suggests humans can’t help interacting with an easily anthropomorphized machine and will therefore answer these sorts of blunt interview questions like they would for any other documentarian. Director Brent Hoff will take the raw footage and refine it into a film that’ll debut at the Festival on Sunday.
Meanwhile, the Blabdroid team has launched a Kickstarter to raise the money to put the robots into mass production, in case you’re in the market for a wired confidant.