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Published: Monday, 1/14/2008

Robot joins UT recruiting team

BY MEGHAN GILBERT
BLADE STAFF WRITER
Ted Ronau, manager of technology development at the University of Toledo's Center for Creative Instruction, explains modifications he made to put a face on EMC. The robot helps recruit prospective students. Ted Ronau, manager of technology development at the University of Toledo's Center for Creative Instruction, explains modifications he made to put a face on EMC. The robot helps recruit prospective students.
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The newest member of the University of Toledo recruiting team works just a couple minutes a day.

He slides in for the last part of presentations to prospective students in high school and steals the show.

Well, maybe more "it" than "he," since we're talking about a robot.

The White Box Robotics 914 PC-BOT's job is to provide a "wow factor" to make sure visitors don't forget UT, said Nick Morgan, assistant director of undergraduate admissions.

"Students are visiting a lot more campuses and we want to stand out," he said.

Mr. Morgan said high school juniors and seniors used to visit a campus or two before deciding where to get their degree. Now it's common for them to visit four campuses or more, he said.

So schools have to keep looking for ways to stand out.

UT gives a presentation about the university's colleges and its achievements, takes visitors on a campus tour showing off the architecture, and shows videos of current students talking about what they enjoy about campus life.

But everybody does that.

"This is a little bit different and you may not see it at another school," Mr. Morgan said.

"You will not see it," chimes in Ted Ronau, the "father" of EMC as the manager of technology development in UT's Center for Creative Instruction.

EMC stands for Enrollment Management Communication and is pronounced "emcee."

Mr. Ronau took the 914 PC-BOT that the university purchased for $5,165 about a year ago and made modifications, including giving EMC a face.

The robot was paid for out of the enrollment services budget, which was about $730,000 for fiscal year 2007.

By itself, the robot is a computer on wheels that looks a bit like R2-D2 from Star Wars films.

But UT's version has a 19-inch monitor attached that displays an avatar modeled after Mr. Ronau's colleague, Roy Schneider, the manager of medical illustration at UT.

The avatar face personalizes EMC, allowing him facial expressions as he tells people he's the artificial intelligence ambassador of the university and proud to be a graduate of UT's computer science program.

EMC's voice is still quite robotic with the six messages he's programmed to say.

Mr. Ronau also adapted the robot to be used with a wireless video-game controller rather than a separate computer. He can move about, albeit slowly, on wheels and also has a projector on the back of the monitor that shows videos.

EMC isn't all they thought he would be. However, Mr. Ronau is hoping for a more advanced version that they could work on while EMC does his recruiting work.

The modifications were done by Mr. Ronau and his staff, but he's hoping that for the second one, the work could be incorporated into an engineering course for students to get a hand in the action.

It would be good for Mr. Ronau, too, who admits he has a bit of empty-nest syndrome after EMC went off to work early last month.

"It's like a child. I could talk about him all day," he said, later admitting with a laugh that he has photographs of EMC's first outing and other milestones.

Ryan Rigda, a senior at Birch Run High School in Birch Run, Mich., is considering UT as well as the University of Michigan and Carthage College in Kenosha, Wis.

While at UT on Friday for his tour, Ryan and his dad, Scott Campbell, of Defiance, said they were a bit surprised by the robot addressing visitors.

"It's pretty interesting," Ryan said. "It will definitely stick with me."

And EMC's job is done.

Contact Meghan Gilbert at:

mgilbert@theblade.com

or 419-724-6134.



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