Philly pranksters admit hitchBOT video was hoax, but say they didn’t dismember him [video]

“Don’t Always Trust the News!”

That message comes midway through the newly released YouTube video from Philadelphia video bloggers Jesse Wellens and Ed Bassmaster, who pounced on the media frenzy around the demise of a hitchhiking robot by fabricating surveillance footage.

The staged recording provided news outlets grist to push the story forward, though early on, some viewers suspected it was far too good to be true.

Some of the first lines of skepticism coming from Reddit readers then other bloggers joined the doubting masses. 

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Matt Novak from Gizmodo, for instance, highlighted how the video “looks amateurishly staged, poorly acted, and has clearly been given artificial grain and distortion. Security footage hasn’t looked like this since the 1990s, bros.”

Two facts made the admission it was a fake easy to anticipate: There are no surveillance cameras within view of the bench on which the footage depicts the hitchBOT death dramatization near Elfreth’s Alley. And, perhaps far more obvious, the source of the footage came from two local guys who make a living by recording pranks.

The two-minute video showing how they pulled it off starts with a montage of TV anchors talking breathlessly about the “new video,” or “surveillance footage thought to show its final seconds,” and “surveillance allegedly shows what happened to the Canadian robot.”

Then “Always Teste,” one of Bassmaster’s comedic personas, is seen dismounting the camera and walking over to the bench where the robot beat-down was depicted. Sitting on the bench is a blinking iPhone. On the sidewalk? HitchBOT replica arms made of swimming noodles and gardening gloves, just like the real thing. Except these supplies were purchased at Wal-Mart, instead of a Real Canadian Superstore.

“Listen, we didn’t kill the robot,” Wellens said walking through Wal-Mart’s aisles. “It’s really sad, I’m sure some d-bag did it.”

Then we see that Bassmaster stood on Wellens’ shoulders to mount the camera on a city sign near the bench.

The video ends with a supportive shout-out to the talking child-sized robot: “HitchBOT is a really cool project.”

It’s interesting timing. Roboticists at Ryerson University in Canada said on Wednesday that the bot’s 2015 summer journey is officially over. Still, its creators are mulling whether to rebuild it and send it back to Philadelphia, where it can try again to make it through the city without being obliterated. 

“As researchers, we wanted to know, ‘can robots trust humans?’ and knew there would always be the possibility that hitchBOT would be damaged or stolen,” said David Harris Smith, one of hitchBOT’s creators

“Even though it did end badly for hitchBOT, we’ve learned a lot about human empathy and trust — everything we’ve learned will be borne out in the resulting research and used in future planning for hitchBOT’s adventures.”

The perpetrator of the robot murder, meanwhile, remains at large. HitchBOT’s charitable Canadian creators said again on Wednesday that they have no interest in pressing charges or locating the person who vandalized the bot.

Internet sleuths haven’t yet identified any suspects. But it bears repeating that two Philadelphia pranksters had the last known contact with hitchBOT before its circuits went kaput.

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