Mars Rover: Interactive Kid's Museum Exhibit

Gabriel Espinosa and Jason Nyland

Introduction

KidSTREAM is a local children’s museum in Camarillo that is expected to open fully in 2021. They currently have one room in operation that contains various science-related exhibits.  During a previous outreach project for KidSTREAM, Gabriel had created a basic “Mission Control” device with arcade buttons and LEDs, using an Arduino and piezo speaker to flash lights and make sounds when buttons were pressed. 

KidSTREAM’s president, Kristie Akl, said the project was so well-received by the children that it was worn out beyond repair, and requested a more durable version.   KidSTREAM also noted that they had received a large Mars Rover replica, but were unsure of what to do with it.                

Mars Rover Replica

After several brain-storming sessions, we came up with the idea to fabricate a “head” that could be retrofitted to the Rover. The head would contain a camera, which would be aimed at a green screen. When children would stand in front of the camera, a monitor would display the children in front of an outer space background. This would be paired with two updated versions of Gabriel’s control panel, built with laser-cut acrylic panels mounted in wooden boxes.

Approach

We started by creating new Control Panel interfaces by using laser-cut acrylic sheets.  These would be mounted to the front of wooden enclosures.  KidSTREAM had access to woodworking volunteers, so when the blueprints for the Control Panels were created, a copy was sent to KidSTREAM for their woodworkers.

The head of the robot would be 3D-printed, with an opening for a webcam.  This would feed into a PC with a dedicated GPU to handle rendering and streaming green-screen footage live to a Raspberry Pi powering a large TV display.

The PC uses OBS to capture and render the output, which it streams over UDP to the Raspberry Pi which plays it on the display.  The most important aspect was to make all this function like an appliance, so that museum operators could turn the exhibit on and everything would work automatically.  This was easily accomplished using startup scripts in the Linux desktop.  The PC connects directly to the Pi with a singular crossover ethernet cable, to avoid extra costs or complexity from networking equipment.

Crisis Management

Because the project involves so much community outreach and planning, it was significantly impacted by the COVID-19 crisis of 2020.  Many allowances had to be made to keep the project on track while still creating a project that the KidSTREAM museum could utilize when the crisis was over.

While our original plan was to develop the project with the assistance of other KidSTREAM volunteers, the quarantine order made us shift into working in isolation.  It also meant that we were unable to access the Rover or the KidSTREAM facility to implement or test our devices.

In response, our new plan was to deliver a “Rover Upgrade Kit”… a collection of bolt-on parts that could be easily attached, powered up, and immediately provide new interactive features to the exhibit after the quarantine was lifted and work on the KidSTREAM museum could resume.  This includes a head and neck assembly to be attached to the rover, the PC that handles video processing, the Pi to display video, and the new control panels.

Conclusions

In spite of the COVID-19 crisis, we were able to create and deliver several new interactive features that children will be able to use for years at the KidSTREAM museum in Camarillo, CA.  We are proud of the quality of work and the value we were able to add to this educational facility in the community. 

Because this is Gabriel’s second project with KidSTREAM and working with them has been such a positive experience, he will continue assisting them in the future, and hopes to oversee the rest of the Mars Rover exhibit’s creation.

Acknowledgements

Dr. Scott Feister, for mentoring us and keeping us on track during the crisis over so many iterations of our capstone project

Kristie Akl, for providing the opportunity to do a meaningful community outreach project and funding the development of the exhibit. https://www.kidstream.org/

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