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"Great Robot Race": Geeky Fun

If you're enough of a dork to be reading this site, you're enough of a dork to enjoy PBS' "The Great Robot Race," airing next Tuesday night.darpaGC-win.jpgThe show does a nice job setting up the main rivalry of last fall's Darpa Grand Challenge, the $2 million unmanned raly across the Mojave Desert. Domineering, jerky genius Red Whittaker and his hyper-funded Carnegie Mellon team comes charging out of one corner. Likeably bland Sebastian Thrun and his nerdy Stanford crew ambles out of the other.And there's more than a difference in personalities. Whittaker builds his bots, more or less from the ground up. Thrun gets his pretty much of-the-shelf from Volkswagen, so he can concentrate on software instead. Carnegie Mellon uses a laser mounted to a gimbal to help its robots see; it works like a human head, constantly on watch. Stanford opts to keep its lasers static; but combines them with video data, to put together a more complex picutre of what's in front of the driverless car.By now, it's no secret which team came out ahead. But still, there's a geeky thrill watching the race's pivotal moment through the eyes of Stanley, the Stanford machine. That alone is worth checking out the hour-long documentary.Like most shows of its kind, "The Great Robot Race" could've done better at balancing out its animated schematics and techie explanations with real human drama. And there was plenty to be had during the Grand Challenge; Thrun and Whittaker were colleagues until just a few months before the race. But the show ends on a gee-whiz-science-is-awesome, let's-all-hug moment, instead of with the obvious friction between the Carnegie and Stanford camps. Why set up a rivalry with no tension? Worse, "The Great Robot Race" leaves out perhaps the most fascinating story of the whole event: the Gray Team from New Orleans, a group of insurance company amateurs who nearly beat Stanford and Carnegie both, despite having its shop wrecked by Katrina.

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