Pisa Past and Future
The first time I heard about the Perceptual Robotics (PERCRO) Lab was in 2014. The robotics division of the Sant’Anna University of Pisa made the news by unveiling their brand new exoskeleton prototype, the “Body Extender”. Italy rarely makes headlines for technology, and Pisa is so close to Florence, so I thought: “I must see this thing”. I think that the centuries-old rivalry between Florence and Pisa also played into it. “They couldn’t even make a straight tower, and here they come with a super advanced robot. How is this possible?”
Well I didn’t make it to the lab until this year. This spring semester with so many engineering students proved fertile ground for a day trip proposal that sounded pretty much like “Let’s go to Pisa and see how you create a state of the art robotics lab in a medieval town”. The idea was to show the students an aspect of Italy that they rarely get in touch with. Italy isn’t only a place where people look to the past, but also to the future.
About ten students came along, some brought their parents as well, and off we went to Pisa on Friday, March 18th. The lab lived up to the expectations. Professor Salsedo, the head of the Body Extender project, gave us an overview about how robots are interacting and will interact with humans, while showing us the exoskeleton, some rehabilitation robots (which we were able to try) used in medical contexts and finally the x-cave, the PERCRO experimental virtual reality room. He also explained to us what it entails to set up and run a robotics lab in Italy.
After a thoroughly enjoyable break in Piazza dei Miracoli right under the leaning tower, we spent part of the afternoon at the Computer Museum of the University of Pisa (the only computer museum in Italy), learning about Olivetti and the time when Tuscany was as technologically advanced as California- hard to believe but true up until the early 1960s. After finishing the day with a gelato, we headed back to Florence, full of new perspectives of the town of Pisa, now known for much more than a crooked tower.
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