`HELLO, please step onto the feet and I will measure your height.'' Obeying the voice of the computer, - even though it sounds more like Count Dracula than an intelligent machine - I step onto the footprints marked on the floor. ``You seem to be about five feet and nine inches,'' the computer says after a slight pause. Suitably impressed with the accuracy of the measurement, I step back and watch a 12-year-old girl step onto the footprints.
Of the two of us, she is far more determined to test the machine's capacities; she scrunches down like a frog and awaits the computer's verdict....
``You seem to be about two feet, eight and one quarter inches.'' The girl wears a smug, mischievous smile as she walks away after her little triumph over artificial intelligence.
We are in the darkened precincts of the ``smart machines gallery'' at the Computer Museum in Boston, which is at present the only museum of its kind in the world, according to the curator, Oliver B.R. Strimpel.
Although the museum started as a collection, it now provides much more than a history of computing. Mr. Strimpel and his associates here have created a participatory environment where visitors - whatever their age or degree of familiarity with computers - can interact with computers in an extraordinary variety of activities. It's very much a hands-on experience. After a brief tour by red-vested ``interpreters'' (guides), groups of school children are turned loose to experiment with the machines.
Have you ever wondered what you'd look like with green hair? A computer-cum-camera will take snapshots of the user and display the photos on its screen. One then colorizes the image by hand, touching the screen to match colors with areas on the photographic image.
Need a haggling lesson? The ``haymarket'' program will drive a hard bargain for an imaginary box of strawberries.
Other machines help visitors compose music, direct a robot that moves wooden blocks, and design automobiles, testing each design for wind resistance. And for tourists there's a computer that tells the easiest way to drive from one location to another in Boston's labyrinth of one-way streets.
While most of the visitors to the museum are from New England, school groups have come from New Jersey, Delaware, Pennsylvania, and upper New York state. On this particular morning there are pupils from a high school in Meredith, N.H., and a seventh-grade class from Brookline, Mass. The kids are generally enthusiastic about their field trips to the museum. It's ``much better'' than a day in school, says one student from New Hampshire. But Nathan Spunt of Brookline says some improvements could be made. He enjoyed the opportunity to interact with the machines, but said that the interpreters could have been ``more informative'' in their tour, and that ``they treated us like rowdy kids.''
Of course the red-vested guides must make sure that precocious youngsters like Nathan treat the computers with respect, and don't get too rambunctious.
In the smart machines gallery, the interpreter has his hands full as the seventh-graders bustle from machine to machine. In spite of the available activities, the museum staff generally maintains a quiet, orderly atmosphere.
The tours have a historical focus, highlighting the museum's fine collection of early computers. But Strimpel says that this is one of the areas he hopes to improve in the near future, as funding becomes available. More than 150 corporations help support the museum.
Strimpel came to the museum from England in 1984, after working as curator for mathematics and computing at the Science Museum, London.
He plans to redesign two- thirds of the exhibit space in the red-brick building, a converted warehouse that has a children's museum on the lower levels. There is ample room: two spacious floors with attractive views overlooking Boston's waterfront and downtown skyline.,
In addition to an exhibit on milestones in computer history, Strimpel is planning to increase the use of interactive video technology. But his eyes gleam with greatest eagerness as he describes another project, a major exhibit on how computers work. This walk-in exhibit will deal with the workings of computers in a ``fun and exciting'' manner, he says.
All computers work basically the same way, Strimpel says, whether they operate with thousands of square feet of vacuum tubes or with the microscopic circuitry on a silicon chip. As if to prove his point, the museum has one computer constructed out of Tinker Toys and fishing wire. Its sole purpose is to play tick-tack-toe, and as long as the fishing wire doesn't become loose, the machine won't lose a game.
The plan to spruce up the exhibit space is part of an ongoing effort to help the museum reach a wide general audience, not just ``techies.''
Though founded in 1982, the impetus for the museum grew out of efforts made nearly a decade earlier to save the historic ``Whirlwind'' computer - a 3,100-square-foot dinosaur developed at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in 1945. This was a prototype for later SAGE systems, a radar defense network made of the largest computers ever built.
The enormous machine, only part of which is on display, already looks ancient with its endless rows of vacuum tubes. About 500 of the lightbulb-like tubes would burn out each week. Today's desktop personal computers work almost as fast as the SAGE, which made 83,000 calculations per second.
These early computers remind us how fast technology and its applications change. It will be interesting to revisit he Computer Museum and see what's on display in 50 years!