W.I.S.O.R.: The Robo-Welder (2000) is a documentary from Michael Negroponte about the Welding And Inspection Steam Operations Robot (W.I.S.O.R.) that was designed to repair steam pipes beneath New York City.
Because of the importance of Manhattan's steam system, and because of the costs, danger, and inconveniences associated with maintaining and repairing damage to the system, ConEd (NYC's gas and electric company) contracts with Honeybee Robotics to design an automated solution. This documentary follows the construction of W.I.S.O.R. and all of the various problems (and solutions) discovered by the engineers, both technical and budgetary. I thought that this topic would make an extremely interesting documentary, but...
The documentary has many, many flaws. But, if I were to try to summarize the problems in one statement, it would be this: the director did not feel that his audience would find this material very interesting. I actually thought that the subject matter was fascinating, but Negroponte does not seem to trust that his audience will stay awake. So, instead, he puts in condescending voiceover narration to give a historical perspective, adds a bunch of unnecessary "flashy" filming techniques, and -- worst of all -- personifies the robot by giving him a voice. The "robovoice" grated on my nerves the first couple of times they used it; after 75 minutes of this, I wanted to run screaming from the room.
Clearly, a better solution would be to make the documentary 50 or 60 minutes long and tighten it up a bit, losing the silly tricks currently employed and focusing on the drama and science at hand. As things now stand, the subject is interesting, but the documentary itself is extremely annoying and barely watchable.
Picture quality is mediocre at best. It's difficult to rate the picture, because the director uses so many different types of film stocks, colors, still photos, etc. Again, the documentary is intentionally flashy and uneven, so it is almost impossible to review. The film switches from color to black and white, regular motion to slow motion to speedy motion for no apparent reason and I had trouble telling what "problems" were actually problems and which ones were intentional artistic decisions by the filmmaker. I did notice quite a few digital artifacts, but these too looked intentional -- not a DVD encoding problem, but rather source material that was overcompressed to start with.
Regardless, the picture is just adequate. It has problems, but it isn't nearly as distracting at the various film tricks that the director uses to attempt to keep the audience interested.
Sound is 2.0 stereo and is fine for the limited range and requirements of a scientific documentary.
Extras include a 13-minute interview with MIT's artificial intelligence expert Marvin Minsky, some fairly pointless robot still frames, a trailer for Negroponte's 1995 film JUPITER'S WIFE, and the usual biographical/informational text screens.
It's unfortunate that such an interesting subject did not result in a better documentary. Those who are still interested enough to seek this out should definitely rent it first. The robot voice alone is enough to insure that there will be no repeat watching. Otherwise, I'd recommend that you skip this title.