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A cardboard 'bot from Cambridge makes it big at the Tribeca Film Festival

Posted by Scott Kirsner  May 1, 2013 12:10 PM

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At the DIY Days conference last Saturday in Manhattan, I ran into MIT Media Lab alum Alexander Reben and his little cardboard buddy, BlabDroid.

Reben was in town for the Tribeca Film Festival; he had deployed 20 BlabDroids there as robotic documentarians, asking questions of random people and recording their answers. (BlabDroid also won the Creative Sparks competition at DIY Days, earning Reben some free office space in New York and a "micro-grant" of $500. I served as a judge.)

The 'bot is designed to look cute and homemade, and it speaks in the voice of a 7-year old boy — all strategies to induce interviewees to let down their guard and start talking freely. Among the questions BlabDroid is prone to ask is, "What's the worst thing you've ever done to someone?"

BlabDroid garned quite a lot of publicity while in New York for Tribeca (here's the Wall Street Journal, Wired, and Gizmag). But Reben's Kickstarter campaign to raise $75,000 in order to put the 'bot into production hasn't yet caught fire. For $299, you get a fully-assembled BlabDroid that can move around under its own steam, and connect via Bluetooth with a smartphone; a less-expensive "Starter BlabDroid" is also available. With about a month left, Reben is still $70,000 short of his target.

Reben heads to the UK later this month to speak at the Thinking Digital conference. BlabDroid's predecessor was a Media Lab project called Boxie, The Story Gathering Robot. Below is a video that BlabDroid shot at a film festival in Amsterdam back in March, and a photo of BlabDroid's Arduino-based innards.

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Scott Kirsner was part of the team that launched Boston.com in 1995, and has been writing a column for the Globe since 2000. His work has also appeared in Wired, Fast Company, The New York Times, BusinessWeek, Newsweek, and Variety. Scott is also the author of the books "Fans, Friends & Followers" and "Inventing the Movies," was the editor of "The Convergence Guide: Life Sciences in New England," and was a contributor to "The Good City: Writers Explore 21st Century Boston." Scott also helps organize several local events on entrepreneurship, including the Nantucket Conference and Future Forward. Here's some background on how Scott decides what to cover, and how to pitch him a story idea.

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