Camera-equipped robots roam London gallery, at whim of online art lovers

LONDON - London's famed Tate Britain museum is taking a creepy route to draw new audiences into its galleries showcasing 500 years worth of British art: allowing robots equipped with cameras to roam the gallery floors in the wee hours of the night - and to stream what they see live on the Internet.

"We want it to feel a bit spooky, a bit mysterious," says Jane Burton, Creative Director of Tate Media at the museum. "[Online users] will probably see different things in the artwork than [visitors] would see in them if they came during the day," she added.

The four robots have cameras that tilt and have LED lights, casting deep shadows on or illuminating the paintings, sculptures and other objects d'art as they roll through the museum's darkened halls.

Anyone who logs on to the Tate Britain's "After Dark" website can watch the live video stream after hours - and a select number of people will have the opportunity to remotely command the motor-operated robots on wheels.

"From your couch, anywhere in the world, if you've got the right Internet connection and browser, you can come and see what we have in our galleries, at night," Burton says.

The idea, organizers say, is to use digital technology to recreate the experience of exploring a museum, alone, in the dark - like a security guard wandering the floor with a flashlight. But here, museum tour guides are staying up late to provide live, play-by-play commentary on the video streams, as the motorized robots wheel around.

The Workers design studio, which created the project, incorporated space exploration technology and 3-D printers to build the robots. The robots have multiple sensors - including acoustic pinging - that should keep the robots from bumping into priceless treasures in the night.

Chris Hadfield, the astronaut whose International Space Station video rendition of David Bowie's Space Oddity went viral, was the first to test drive the museum's robot cams.

"You forget about the robot in your hands, and it just becomes an extension of your mind - that's how technology ought to be," Hadfield said in a statement.

Some tourists visiting the museum during opening hours say the "After Dark" robots are a good way for those who can't make the physical journey to London to explore good art.

"For somebody in the United Sates, this would be the first time they were exposed to the Tate, so I think it's great," says Kristine Murphy, visiting from Watertown, Massachusetts.

Organizers say they have no idea how popular the robot camera project will be, or from where people may log on. But they're promising a new way to experience art - and a night at the museum.

The robots are scheduled to roam the Tate Britain through Sunday night.

Follow CBS correspondent Alphonso Van Marsh on Twitter (@AlphonsoVM)

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