Carnegie Mellon University students program robot to separate Oreo cookie


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It turns out that Oreos may be good for robots.

Herb, a Carnegie Mellon University robot, has learned a lot in the past month as part of an assignment to figure out how to do that classic maneuver: separate the cookie part of an Oreo from the filling.

Any human can tell you, it's a challenge.

"The Oreo is very brittle. It's a very delicate object. It's a very small object," noted Siddhartha Srinivasa, associate professor with CMU's Robotic Institute and the guy who agreed to take a shot at the task when the advertising agency for the brand pitched it in early February.

The cookie brand, owned by Kraft spinoff Mondelez International, has been pushing the battle of the cookie vs. the creme since the Super Bowl. During the game, Oreo ran a commercial showing a whisper battle in a library that got out of control. The campaign also has included an Instagram piece and a contest involving texting.

Creative types were recruited to produce interesting Oreo Separator content that would get consumers engaged in a brand that's been around since 1912 and produces about $2 billion in annual revenues.

One online video shows cookies attached to a sort of Ferris wheel-like machine that eventually manages to scrape off the filling. One featuring physicist David Neevel in Portland, Ore., and a machine that uses a hatchet to separate the two cookies has tallied up more than 3.9 million views.

The video featuring CMU's Herb, whose name is an acronym that stands for Household Exploring Robotic Butler, went live Friday. By mid-afternoon Monday, it had more than 150,000 views.

The little robot that can work a microwave and clean a table is scripted with a bit of wry humor. "Guess what they have me learning?" he asks. "Separating Oreo cookies. Apparently that is a big deal for humans."

Actually, it was kind of a big deal for Herb, according to Mr. Srinivasa. When the agency pitched the challenge, he said it sounded fun -- and maybe impossible.

The CMU team had not pushed the robot to use fine motor skills like those humans employ in such a task.

Three or four people, both staff and students, worked on the project in between other duties. They started by seeing how Herb did with general instructions and then, after seeing where he ran into problems, wrote more algorithms to help him develop better skills to cope.

"We had a lot of destroyed cookies," Mr. Srinivasa said. They started with 50 or 60 bags.

Herb's performance did earn a "nominal gift" to the lab. Mr. Srinivasa declined to disclose details but said the money will go toward some of his students' tuition.

He's not sure his robot has a future in commercials. But he is pleased with ideas on new research that came out of the project.

"It really showed us that our robot was a lot more capable than we thought it was."

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Teresa F. Lindeman: tlindeman@post-gazette.com or at 412-263-2018.


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