The Furby was "coded for cuteness"

Released in 1998 by Tiger Electronics, more than 40 million Furbies were sold in its first three years of life. What made this bizarre animatronic toy so damn popular? Read the rest

Impressive robot praised by Russia state television revealed to be a man in a costume

State-owned TV network Russia-24 ran a story about an impressive humanoid robot named Boris that wowed attendees at a youth technology conference. Turns out, Boris the Robot was actually a man inside a commercially-available, high-end robot costume. From The Guardian:

A photograph published by MBKh Media, the news agency founded by the Vladimir Putin opponent Mikhail Khodorkovsky, appeared to show the actor in the robot suit ahead of the forum on Tuesday in Yaroslavl, a city about 150 miles north-east of Moscow.

The organisers of the Proyektoria technology forum, held each year for the “future intellectual leaders of Russia”, did not try to pass off the robot as real, the website reported.

But whether by mistake or design, the state television footage did just that. “It’s entirely possible one of these [students] could dedicate himself to robotics,” an anchor reported. “Especially as at the forum they have the opportunity to look at the most modern robots.”

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This plant drives its own robot

Elowan is a "plant-robot hybrid" that uses its own bio-electromechanical signaling to drive itself around toward light sources. From an explanation by researcher Harpreet Sareen and his colleagues at the MIT Media Lab:

In this experimental setup, electrodes are inserted into the regions of interest (stems and ground, leaf and ground). The weak signals are then amplified and sent to the robot to trigger movements to respective directions.

Such symbiotic interplay with the artificial could be extended further with exogenous extensions that provide nutrition, growth frameworks, and new defense mechanisms.

Elowan: A plant-robot hybrid Read the rest

Space station astronauts have a new floating AI robot companion

Astronauts on board the International Space Station have switched on CIMON (Crew Interactive Mobile CompanioN), a new AI companion robot built by German space agency DLR, Airbus, and IBM. CIMON is an interface for IBM's WATSON AI system. From Space.com:

Marco Trovatello, a spokesman of the European Space Agency's Astronaut Centre in Cologne, Germany, told Space.com that CIMON could respond within a couple of seconds after a question was asked, no slower than in ground-based tests.

A data link connects CIMON with the Columbus control center in Germany; from there, the signal travels first to the Biotechnology Space Support Center at the Lucerne University in Switzerland, where CIMON's control team is based. Then, the connection is made over the internet to the IBM Cloud in Frankfurt, Germany, Bernd Rattenbacher, the team leader at the ground control centre at Lucerne University, said in the statement...

"CIMON is a technology demonstration of what a future AI-based assistant on the International Space Station or on a future, longer-term exploration mission would look like," Trovatello said. "In the future, an astronaut could ask CIMON to show a procedure for a certain experiment, and CIMON would do that."

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Diners use chest-mounted robot arms to feed each other in unusual social experiment

Researchers at Melbourne, Australia's RMIT University devised these bizarre "third arm" chest-mounted"robots to experiment with what they call "playful eating." For science. Video below. From RMIT University's Exertion Games Lab:

In this experience, all three arms (the person’s own two arms and the “third” arm, the robotic arm) are used for feeding oneself and the other person. The robotic arm (third arm) is attached to the body via a vest. We playfully subverted the functioning of the robotic arm so that its final movements (once it has picked up the food), i.e. whether to feed the wearer or the partner, are guided by the facial expressions of the dining partner...

Mapping of the partner’s “more positive” facial expression to the feeding of food to the partner (via the wearer’s third arm) we hoped would elicit joy, laughter, and a sense of sharing based on the knowledge of feeding one another that is associated with positive emotions, however, this could also result in the perception of a loss of agency over what one eats. Through to-and-fro ambiguous movements of the third arm in the air (when sensing a “neutral” facial expression of the dining partner), it gave an opportunity to the diners to express their reactions more vividly, as we know that facial expressions become a key element to engage with a partner while eating.

"Arm-A-Dine: Towards Understanding the Design of Playful Embodied Eating Experiences" (PDF)

More at IEEE Spectrum: "Feed Your Friends With Autonomous Chest-Mounted Robot Arms"

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Direct from the Uncanny Valley: Affetto, the freaky child android head

This is the new version of Affetto, the robot child head that's a testbed for synthetic facial expressions. According to the Osaka University researchers who birthed Affeto, their goal is to "offer a path for androids to express greater ranges of emotion, and ultimately have deeper interaction with humans." From Osaka University:

The researchers investigated 116 different facial points on Affetto to measure its three-dimensional movement. Facial points were underpinned by so-called deformation units. Each unit comprises a set of mechanisms that create a distinctive facial contortion, such as lowering or raising of part of a lip or eyelid. Measurements from these were then subjected to a mathematical model to quantify their surface motion patterns.

While the researchers encountered challenges in balancing the applied force and in adjusting the synthetic skin, they were able to employ their system to adjust the deformation units for precise control of Affetto’s facial surface motions.

“Android robot faces have persisted in being a black box problem: they have been implemented but have only been judged in vague and general terms,” study first author Hisashi Ishihara says. “Our precise findings will let us effectively control android facial movements to introduce more nuanced expressions, such as smiling and frowning.”

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Prototyping the betentacled, inflatable soft robots of zero gee

The MIT Media Lab's Spatial Flux Project was created by Carson Smuts and Chrisoula Kapelonis to imagine and prototype soft inflatable robots that would be designed to operate in zero-gee, where there is no up or down and "we do not have to contend with architecture's greatest arch-nemesis, gravity." Read the rest

Robots! A fantastic catalog of new species

IEEE Spectrum editor Erico Guizzo and colleagues have blown out their original Robots app into a fantastic catalog of 200 of today's fantastic species of robots. They're cleverly organized into fun categories like "Robots You Can Hug," "Robots That Can Dance," "Space Robots," and "Factory Workers." If they keep it updated, it'll be very helpful for the robot uprising. After all, you can't tell the players without a program!

Robots: Your Guide to the World of Robotics (IEEE Spectrum)

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Incredible video of Boston Dynamics' Atlas robot doing parkour

Boston Dynamics has just released this astounding video of their Atlas humanoid robot doing parkour:

The control software uses the whole body including legs, arms and torso, to marshal the energy and strength for jumping over the log and leaping up the steps without breaking its pace. (Step height 40 cm.) Atlas uses computer vision to locate itself with respect to visible markers on the approach to hit the terrain accurately.

Unfortunately the engineers failed to outfit Atlas with a speech synthesizer to yell "Parkour! Parkour! Parkour!" like so.

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Scientists print robotic flippers based on sea lions

Most aquatic animals propel themselves with a tail or fluke, so roboticists have long been interested in the remarkable speeds possible by mimicking sea lion propulsion with front flippers. Read the rest

Electromechanical "skin" turns everyday objects into robots

Yale engineers developed "robotic skins" from elastic sheets integrating sensors and electromechanical actuators. The idea is that most any flexible object could be transformed into a robot. Professor Rebecca Kramer-Bottiglio and her colleagues reported on their project, called OmniSkins, in the journal Science Robotics. From YaleNews:

Placed on a deformable object — a stuffed animal or a foam tube, for instance — the skins animate these objects from their surfaces. The makeshift robots can perform different tasks depending on the properties of the soft objects and how the skins are applied.

“We can take the skins and wrap them around one object to perform a task — locomotion, for example — and then take them off and put them on a different object to perform a different task, such as grasping and moving an object,” she said. “We can then take those same skins off that object and put them on a shirt to make an active wearable device.”

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Father of hobby robotics, Gordon McComb, has died

I woke up this morning to the sad news that maker-pal and pioneering hobby roboticist, Gordon McComb, had passed away. I wrote a brief eulogy on Make:

It is with a heavy heart that we here at Make: announce the passing of hobby robotics pioneer, Gordon McComb. He died on Monday, Sept 10th, apparently of a heart attack. Gordon was a great friend to Make: and to makers and robotics hobbyists from around the world.

Gordon’s Robot Builder’s Bonanza book, first published in 1987, arguably marks the beginning of hobby robotics as a significant maker category. It was the book that I bought in the late 80s that got me into robot building, and by extension, all forms of hardware hacking...

Gordon was an encyclopedist, a collector of useful information and ideas. His Robot Builder’s Sourcebook, an outsized, sort of Whole Earth Catalog for robot builders, was an absolute treasure trove of access to most every tool and component available at the time (2002). Most recently, Gordon created the book and kit, How to Make a Robot, for Make:.

Fellow hobby robotics pioneer, Mark Tilden, once said: “A human is a way that a robot builds a better robot.” Few humans have done more to build better robots and advance robotkind than Gordon McComb.

Godspeed, Gordon. Your numerous friends and fans, both organic and mechanic, will miss you very much.

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What robots can learn from fire ants

When fire ants dig out a new nest underground, a small number are actually doing most of the work while the rest dilly-dally. Apparently this is actually an effective division of labor because it prevents the insects from getting in each other's way. Now, Georgia Tech researchers suggest this approach could be help future robot swarms be more efficient in cramped areas like collapsed buildings or construction sites. From Science News:

(Physicist Daniel) Goldman’s team created computer simulations of two ant colonies digging tunnels. In one, the virtual ants mimicked the real insects’ unequal work split; in the other, all the ants pitched in equally. The colony with fewer heavy lifters was better at keeping tunnel traffic moving; in three hours, that colony dug a tunnel that was about three times longer than the group of ants that all did their fair share.

Goldman’s team then tested the fire ants’ teamwork strategy on autonomous robots. These robots trundled back and forth along a narrow track, scooping up plastic balls at one end and dumping them at the other. Programming the robots to do equal work is “not so bad when you have two or three,” Goldman says, “but when you get four in that little narrow tunnel, forget about it.” The four-bot fleet tended to get stuck in pileups. Programming the robots to share the workload unequally helped avoid these smashups and move material 35 percent faster, the researchers found.

"Collective clog control: Optimizing traffic flow in confined biological and robophysical excavation" (Science)

(image: Stephen Ausmus/Wikipedia) Read the rest

Robot that ties shoes

Limited to two motors and $600, mechanical engineering students from the University of California, Davis designed and built this shoe-tying machine. I particularly appreciate how the robot uses the same technique as I do: the bunny ears method.

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Swarm robots for airplane engine maintenance

Rolls Royce and Harvard University are exploring how tiny swarm robots could someday crawl through an airplane engine for mechanical check-ups and maintenance.

Each robot measures around 10mm in diameter which would be deposited in the centre of an engine via a ‘snake’ robot and would then perform a visual inspection of hard to reach areas by crawling through the engine. These robots would carry small cameras that provide a live video feed back to the operator allowing them to complete a rapid visual inspection of the engine without having to remove it from the aircraft.

"SWARM Robots" (Rolls Royce via Uncrate)

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Origami hand: "a disposable robot hand" made from folded paper

Tokyo grad student Tezuka Sota's "Origami Hand" is a robotic gripping hand whose plastic-coated, water-resistant folded paper is sterile, disposable, and free from moving parts and lubricants, meaning it can be used in difficult environments that are hostile to bearings and oils, like space or underwater. Read the rest

Help save artist Kal Spelletich's robots and the future of tech-art

For 25 years, my friend Kal Spelletich of Seemen and Survival Research Labs has lived and worked in a San Francisco warehouse studio where he's built myriad robots, fire machines, and sculptures, hosted music, art, and political action events, and provided support for more than 100 other artists, activists, and fringe characters. Guess what. Kal's been evicted. This is yet another gut punch for the Bay Area's creative community that inspired so many technologists but is now being eviscerated by today's big money tech bubble. Kal has launched a GoFundMe campaign to help him push through: Save Kal's Robots

Rented way back in 1995, my space is was one of the last remaining raw warehouse art spaces and I made it into a home for experimental, non commercial art. I hosted jaw-dropping, fire spewing, ear shattering robot performances, music, noise and art events with the likes of Chris Johanson, Johanna Jackson, Marie Lornez and her epic boat, the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence, Matt Heckert.

I did all this without grants or outside support.

No trust funds, patrons or high paying side jobs here. I passed along the cheap rent.

I provided housing and studios for countless artists, freaks, traveling activists and radical journalists like Trevor Paglen, AC Thompson, Heather Dewey-Hagborg, worked on Survival Research Laboratories shows, and countless others.

My life and warehouse were the inspiration for Rudy Rucker’s sci-fi novel Realware. Another book that wouldn't have happened without my warehouse is Streetopia.

I ran my studio as an experimental art/live space that housed and supported over 100 other artists and activists.

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