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A car comes whizzing down a crowded Lawrenceville street, its engine roaring. An electronic arm on the side of the road picks up the noise and makes the connection: loud car, fast car. The machine activates a lever, dropping a "Slow Down" sign into the driver's view.

The device is only a model for now, but designer and seventh-grader Langston MacDiarmid says it could be put to practical use to stop cars from flying down Main Street. If anyone ever does build it to full scale, he says, there are certain kinks they'll need to work out, like making sure the sign doesn't crash into the car's front windshield.

MacDiarmid's "Speeder Spoiler" is just one of the creations to come out of a push by local universities to get communities thinking about technology.

Carl DiSalvo, one of the architects of the Lawrenceville Neighborhood Networks program, says that the goal of last summer's workshops was to introduce people to things like robotics through public art.

"We started off with this idea of how do you think about using advanced technologies in the context of neighborhood activism," says DiSalvo, an assistant professor at the Georgia Institute of Technology, who did his graduate and post-doc work at Carnegie Mellon. "From the very start, it was focused on trying to work specifically with neighborhoods, with real-world neighborhoods, so, not online communities."

DiSalvo and his team went to the community without an agenda, he says. After brainstorming sessions, the neighborhood decided to focus on using technology to document dangerous drivers and air quality.

Neighborhood Networks -- which was facilitated by researchers from CMU and the University of Pittsburgh -- has since merged into Robot 250, a yearlong city-wide celebration of robotics and Pittsburgh's 250th birthday that will culminate in July with a two-week festival.

DiSalvo says he's coming back to Pittsburgh in mid-May to help out this summer. Alongside a number of giant robotic works of art called BigBots -- which will be on display at various locations -- Robot 250 is going to promote the work of community members like MacDiarmid.

It's become difficult to say exactly when Robot 250 was born, according to DiSalvo: "There's multiple origin stories, as there always are with myths." He believes that it started in the fall of 2006 on Craig Street over crêpes.

Last year's Neighborhood Networks program was open to people of all ages. MacDiarmid says that the 10 to 20 participants ranged in age from younger than him to some as old as their 40s. The program lasted about eight weeks, in two-hour sessions.

"Some of the stuff that the kids came up with was great because it was stuff like launching catapults at cars, things that were completely fantastic that only kids would come up with," DiSalvo says.

Looking over his cardboard construction, MacDiarmid says, "I still find it interesting. Of course, I'd be happy to start a new project."

But Lawrenceville isn't the only neighborhood tinkering with high tech.

The Brushton-Homewood YMCA/YWCA hosted two Robot 250 workshops for middle- and high school girls in the summer and fall of 2007.

During the workshops, the girls got to use newly developed robotic camera devices -- unveiled last year by CMU researchers, who've dubbed the technology "GigaPan" -- to document East End neighborhoods in stunning clarity.

GigaPan technology uses a robotic camera mount to capture super high-resolution panoramic images and then stitches them together with software.

The images the girls captured are available on the Web site gigapan.org (search for "hwy"). In a panorama capture at Homewood Cemetery, one can read the lettering on headstones deep in the background using the zoom function.

Sixteen-year-old Angelica Casson says her favorite part was loading the images onto the Internet and sharing them with the world.

Twelve-year-old Niona McLemore predicts that the technology will find many practical uses.

"Use it like it's a real camera," she says, "picnic pictures, wedding pictures."

The GigaPan project was part of the YWCA's TechGYRLS program, which introduces girls to robotics and media technology year-round.

This March, the TechGYRLS participants teamed up with CMU's National Robotics Engineering Center -- which more often makes headlines for its mining and military work -- to compete at the FIRST Robotics tournament.

FIRST Robotics is an Olympiad in which teams build robots, form alliances, and try to complete tasks such as racing around a track or launching balls. The Pittsburgh YWCA team failed to advance to the championship in Atlanta, but team members learned some valuable lessons competing on the regional level.

Their six-wheeled robot looks a bit like a bumper car with a thin plastic arm fastened to its back. The girls -- who had been training on a wood gym floor -- were thrown for a loop when the actual contest took place on carpeting.

"We really didn't know [what it would do] until the first time we got on the track," McLemore says. Next time, we're going to "make sure the wheels are right."

Their team consists of two programmers, three drivers, two safety officers and a number of scouts, who are responsible for finding other teams to form alliances with.

Monique McIntosh, an administrator at the YWCA Greater Pittsburgh, says she was pleased with how the project brought together sportsmanship, academia and the arts.

"I was familiar with [the technology, but] I had no idea that we were introducing it at this level, which is great," says McIntosh, who takes over as director of the Teen Leadership Institute at the Y this week.

McIntosh says that she wants to make it a more comprehensive program and introduce the concepts to children of all ages.

"This is a good way to integrate all of the subjects," she says, pointing out that the girls learned communication skills, technology and math all at once while working on their robot.

Langston MacDiarmid shows off his anti-speeding machine. - HEATHER MULL
  • Heather Mull
  • Langston MacDiarmid shows off his anti-speeding machine.

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