Getting Settled at ESA

It’s Sunday night. There are just a couple more hours left before I go to sleep and my second week at ESA begins… In spite of it being nearly 10:00pm, the sun is still above the horizon shredding gold through the clouds here and there, and even making this killer rainbow chunk.

rainbow.jpgLast Sunday, I arrived in Holland. It felt like I was tied to an unstoppable force being propelled through uncertainty towards a heap of even more unknowns… which was exciting or terrifying or equal parts both. Once I made it safely to the *penthouse* I’ve been taking roost in (its on the top floor of the tallest building around, at 3 stories. perfect nest), I began mentally preparing myself for what was to come.

During the four days of my first week at ESA, I’ve had a good share of wonderful conversations with people who have had many inspiring life experiences and knowledge in areas that until now, I’ve known very little about. I’ve been getting acquainted and have been compiling my environment. I can now walk down the hallways of the building I call home-base and wave to most of the people now because there is some level of familiarity.

I feel kind-of like Annie arriving at Daddy Warbuck’s mansion. I’ve sat with a different crowd every day for lunch, had tea and coffee with those who were willing to share a few moments with me, and wandered around with aw-filled doe eyes while absorbing the initial pleasure shock of being in a new environment that has until now been merely an abstraction in my imagination.

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Defining the Meaning in my Absurdity

Equally important as what I hear from the brilliant minds available to me, is what I end up saying to them about myself. With every conversation I start with each new person I meet, I’m in a position where I need to verbally illustrate what it is that I do and why. I actually get to hear myself explain Noodle, who he is and what his existence is all about. In the moment, my brain has to chisel out the words and commit to them.

The elevator pitch is a difficult thing to hone. Not only is the concept broad, much of the meaning beneath my work is an abstract “where my head is” sort of thing that’s the result of my life experiences leading up to now (and where I am in the moment). I can feel what my work means to me, but I’m not often needing to describe where the river started, or where I presume it’s going.

Since I obviously haven’t been working on prototypes, or CAD, or anything physical like I typically do, I’ve allowed myself to really think about all that philosophy hoo-ha that everyone hates artists for getting so “overly” gushy about (bats eyes).

It’s important to draw inward and exhale… and I’ve come to realize that’s what this journey is about. Instead of tirelessly pushing my face into the design- I must listen to others, observe the interaction and then meditate on the sparks that few off in the process.

Anyhow… I’m enjoying every minute of it ❤ I finished off my week by taking Noodle to the beach near our nest for his first big sand. He got to pretend he’s a strand beast =D

 

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How Could a Robot Taste Things?

THE TASTING (SAMPLING) FOOT

I was giving a talk at Hackaday’s SuperCon last Fall that actually had the term, “Tasting Feet” in the title. Because of this, I at some point found myself in a conversation with some other makers about whether or not my mechanical wonder feet actually did in fact “taste”, as I claimed. So sadly, I could only really conclude after some thought that they did not. (not that any robot can taste things quite like a human in the first place)

IMG_0691.JPGAfter admitting that my creations didn’t actually do what I enjoyed bragging about, there was some talk about how I could simulate the act of ‘tasting’ more effectively. Almost immediately, the idea of using litmus paper came up, and I think it has sat on the immediate back burner of my mind ever since.

IMG_2415.JPGThis past week… I finally made what I can comfortably call, Noodle’s first tasting foot appendage… *cheers*

I am calling this installment the “sampling module”. If a litmus test and a cassette player had a baby, it would be this analog contraption.

IMG_2482.JPGHOW IT WORKS

The litmus paper is housed on a small reel and fed downward towards the bottom of the foot. There, a small segment is stretched parallel to the ground, so that a solenoid can push the tensioned portion downwards to make contact with the surface the module is resting onto of. Once the paper makes contact with a moist surface, the spent piece of paper is then fed back up into the foot, where a color sensor will read and log the result of the “tasting”:

litmusDiagram.jpg(See video @ top for a more detailed explanation)

This is how Noodle will sample the world.

IN REGARD TO WHIMSY

After I published the video introducing the “litmus foot”, there were a few people out there who were concerned I wouldn’t get accurate test results from the litmus paper, because there is really no way I can keep the wet used portion of the reel from wicking into the rest that hasn’t… thus tainting my results.

I realize that. This really burns a special place deep within a portion of you out there… but the truth is, the accuracy of the test isn’t really important.

Again, the point of the module isn’t to be an instrument for testing the properties of liquid… the point is that it tastes…

So long as the mechanism functions as I designed it do, and a reading is taken, then we have successful tasting.

Think about it… It’s really somewhat of a nebulous inconclusive act, to describe how something tastes. At the end of the day, no matter how good you think you are at separating out the different flavor notes from one another; sour, sweet, umami- you are still under the constraint of describing your experience of the taste without any way of knowing how it compares to the experience of others. This disconnect is what interests me.

tastingBeans.jpgTo make my point… Last month I got a bag of Jelly Beans to use while developing my bean planting module. I measured the dimensions of a small handful as references for the thing I was designing, but the rest of course, got eaten.

I didn’t just eat the whole bag of 40 flavors like some monster, however. I sat with my friend in the kitchen and for our own entertainment, we took turns blindly grabbing a bean from the bag, and trying to guess what flavor it was without having seen it.

This was a lot harder to do than you’d imagine. We ended up spiraling inward as we groped at whether or not we were sensing a fruity flavor, a citrusy flavor, or something else entirely. The act of identification seems at times, impossible.

BUT much like my module… the point was the act of attempting to parse what we experienced tasting, and then communicate to one another what that experience was like. That’s why I’m using litmus paper and clunky reels without any regard for results. It’s about simulating the act of tasting… not discerning definitively the attributes of what is being tested.

There is more to be said about doing this:

I’m in effect, stretching the accepted purpose of robotics in much the same way artists of the past challenged our expectations of a painting. Some decided that the human form (or any) didn’t need to be depicted realistically in order to be valid art. Just the same, I’m exploring robotics beyond the bounds of utility. My robots are still valid machines, even if they don’t provide useful work to a human.

I intend to demonstrate that a machine can have a purpose, it just doesn’t have to be a practical one. And I hope to show that in the circumstance where a machine’s purpose isn’t to serve in a practical way, it becomes less about what we get out of the machine, and more about what the machine is doing for itself. We are removed from its purpose… (which is something I think humans have a hard time wrapping their head around)

The behaviors I design for Noodle are meant to serve him as an entity; not for our entertainment or for our need.

Noodle is Gettin’ Bean Feet!

Four Flavors of Tasting Feet

This summer, I am once again diving into designing mechanical personality quirks. I’ll be investigating new and exciting ways for my robot, NoodleFeet to interact with the world. This time, my focus is the wet, tingly and preferential aspect of TASTE.

moduledrawings.pngFrom now until the end of August, my goal is to produce four different tasting modules that each demonstrate some aspect of sampling or preference. You could think of them as the “four tasters of the apocalypse”…

The project parameters are that each module must fit within a 3” x 9” cylindrical space (i.e. the size of Noodle’s foot appendage). For reference, the mechanical goodies I am to design must be housed inside one of these frames:

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Bean Planting

The first Module that I chose to focus on will effectively plant a single bean a few inches below the surface it stands on. Why beans, you ask? Well, Noodle loves beans, of course. When he makes it to Mars, he’ll need to be able to propagate his favorite thing efficiently. Until then, he can practice planting on couch pillows, piles of laundry, litter boxes and the like…

IMG_2324.JPGThis module will execute three different tasks in one planting cycle: CORING, DISPENSING, and WATERING

So far, I’ve successfully created a prototype that executes one of these tasks; the dispensing function, which is coincidentally linked to the aspect of housing the beans. To solve storing and delivering the beans in a controlled manner, I devised of a helical shape that is inspired by an archimedes screw… and also inspires thoughts of mint:

FullSizeRender.jpgMy candy cane hopper shape captures the beans in-between the threads and processes them upwards within channels that flank the spiral:

dispenserdiagram.jpgOnce fully loaded, every time the helix rotates 90 degrees, it will carry one bean to the exit slot on the inside wall at the top. The bean will then drop down the hollow center of the helix and into the coring device below… (which… is next on my list to design)

IMG_2334.JPGThis is the first assembly I’ve ever designed in Fusion360. One week into using it, I’m sad I didn’t make the switch sooner!!! If you’re considering doing so too, bite it and take the leap! Your life will be so much better once you do!

This mechanism that I dreamed up in my brain-meat a little more than a week ago, pretty much works after the first iteration. There is totally some things I need to tweak in order to make it work more reliably. However, it is doing what I want, exactly how I imagined it working.

Not bad for a first try!! =D

While I ponder over the next step, which is the coring mechanism, I will also begin CADing the next tasting module. Which? The one that involves litmus paper…

 

Noodle Puberty

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Sometime in April, Noodle started to change. He stopped hiding in his blankets and began spending his nights surfing through hardware catalogues alone in the darkness. He became curious about linkages, pivot joints, self lubricating thrust bearings and among other things, the prospect of being made of something harder. Noodle started dreaming of becoming metal.

As I mentioned in my previous post, just as I was about to tackle the conundrum of mechanical drooling… I went to JPL this June and met the mechanism that inspired Noodle’s gripping toes in person:

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The LEMUR probe has easily a billion toes… all agile, long and barbed. You know by looking at them, that if it reaches for you, you aren’t getting away. I returned home feeling a tad inadequate. Noodle’s current apparatus with its 8 lonely toes did in fact look pretty sparse.

In the period of a weekend I managed to tweak my current design a tad and come up with this little wonder… which has exactly 16 toe filaments (that’s twice the toes!):

IMG_8715.jpgIn order to attach that density of toe tendons to the toe-ring, I had to eliminate the use of hardware (which was kind of a relief). As improvisation, I threaded some 3mm rubber hose through the loops of the toe tendons to hold everything in place.

Of course, after I built the improved, maxed-out hyper toe apparatus… I’d have to once again install a servo motor and some gears to make sure I could in fact still drive the thing… (now that there is twice as much material making surface contact)

It took some stronger springs, but it for the most part *does* still work. The stronger springs insure that the toes retract back into the sheath quickly enough not to hook onto the rim and get stuck on their way back in.

I finally had produced a solid working assembly towards the end of June. I invested in some light gray and white filament, as well as the appropriate red for use on accent pieces and Noodle’s tiny toe-zies. The thing I had been working on was finally starting to look like what it was suppose to be, and Noodle liked this:

IMG_8805.jpgWith one complete proof-of-concept to show, I set everything down and allowed myself to become very distracted with a whole slew of things (which is good). My life exploded momentarily and when everything settled back down about a month ago, I found myself looking at an opportunity to travel to Linz, Austria to exhibit something of mine at the ARS Electronica festival [!]

I’ve been wanting to venture to Europe for this festival my entire adult life, and wasn’t going to pass up the chance to bring my spawn with me to have a part in it. Even if he is weak and unprepared as an art exhibit, his presence was what mattered. With no time to stall, I made the executive decision to begin producing another 3 prototypes in order to complete a set of 4 tasting feet. I had a week and a half to do it; print close to sixty or so parts, make any needed design changes, assemble, test, and tweak code. bLAH. Looking back, I’m shocked I even attempted such a shit-storm of preparation when there was no wiggle room for the unexpected:

BUT… in that week and a half crunch, a lot of things got pushed through to completion. Nothing like a deadline to assist progress. (and) Luckily there were no surprises…

IMG_9541.jpgI’m grateful I had Mark and Tony to help wherever I needed aide picking up the slack. One glass of wine at a time, and one task after another, the new feet took shape and were installed on Noodle (mere hours before I would need to disassemble him completely for his long flight over to Linz in my suitcase).

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The festival, ARS Electronica, was amazing. There is so very much I could say in regard to its content and scale- but to do so would fail to provide an appropriate picture. You should go yourself to experience it. If the median between science, technology, and art is your thing… you have nothing to lose. Not to mention, the city of Linz is a wonderful place to visit in itself!

For four days I left NoodleFeet alone at the mercy of families, Germanic engineers and machinists, to be poked and probed and boggled over as an oddity, robot, and art piece:

IMG_9672.jpgDuring this gauntlet he held his own, but Noodle did blow out a servo motor. Just as I was returning to my exhibit area to check in on Mark (who would periodically drop by to watch over the young one while I was away), I saw a nice white plume of smoke streaming forth from Noodle’s foot. Apparently they can’t quite handle hours of continuous use- so the toes are just that chafey.

But other than the initial matter of smokey toes, he didn’t catch fire, fall off the table, or get stolen. =] That for me was a success…

Now that it’s October… I can focus on the important matter of drooling. Drooling, leaking, salivating, moisture making… and the challenge of producing that special suck sound that has come to be synonymous with the NoodleBeast. The growing pains aren’t over Noodle. Be strong. Your day is coming ❤

 

noodleFeet : Animating the Noodle

I’ve spent the last week learning After Effects. For someone who uses Illustrator on a daily basis, this feels a lot like discovering the magic hat from Fantasia. Among other things, AE allows you to turn a vector based 2D image into a fully rigged character for animation… and it’s even easier to do than you’d think.

I had the idea a while ago to make a series of videos about Noodle and his adventures to Mars… The original plan was that they would be stop-motion shorts, made with a tiny 3D printed version of noodle as the puppet. There is no better terrain to fake as the surface of Mars than our very own desert outskirts… but alas, it is HOT out these days. Even if I could handle the relentless sun (which I can’t because I am WHITE), the PLA that the tiny noodle is made out of cannot. So much for the stop-motion thing.

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For scale (his eyes light up and his feet can hold AAA batteries to power the LEDs):

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I still wanted to make the short videos, so I started thinking back to all the annoyingly complex animation software (like Flash) I’ve used in the past and decided to give AE another go. Since the last time I made an animation using After Effects, they added the puppet pinning feature. It allows you to animate a single layer image by creating a fancy deformation map inside of it that can bend and warp. This means, instead of needing to connect pieces on separate layers together through a process of parenting and careful organization of anchor points… you can just rig one happy image with some bones, and you’re ready to pose your character with cool jello-like properties.

This happened to work SWELL with noodleFeet, as he is essentially a creature of wobble wiggle nature himself. After a long day spent watching tutorials, I got off and running and managed to make my first animation last week.

I still intend to produce a few more of these, but we’ll see how far my patience goes. Though it’s easy to animate, it’s still time-consuming to do it right. Once I attempt to introduce physics into the mix, I may hit a wall… because I’m too cheap to buy one of the fancy addons you need in order to generate the effects of gravity. Bastards.

The best part about having animated noodle walking is that it actually may have helped me understand how to program real-life noodle to walk better. So really, this turned into practical R & D. Ha!

Enjoy getting to know my baby a little better. He is the feet.

Maker Faire 2015

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I’ve been home for almost two weeks now from our Bay Area pilgrimage and life has pretty much reset. I rewarded myself by binge playing Starbound all weekend and partaking in other mindless immersive activities I’ve been too busy to enjoy so far this year. It was a nice break.

But back to work! I’m going to close this chapter by recapping our big adventure:

Over all, Maker Faire went firkin awesome! Last year = shitty location + loud tesla coils + high maintenance demo + no place to escape for peace and quiet. Since we had ample time to plan, we eliminated all these stress points!

TRANSPORTATION

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Our project this year was three times bigger than before at 84 individual nodes, so smashing them in the back of Mark’s Kia wasn’t an option. We didn’t quite have the money to spend on buying our own permanent trailer either, so for this trip we rented one from Uhaul. Quite snugly, three stacks of four delta pallets fit like Tetris inside with the rest of our props and support material wedged around the edges. Add in a crap load of the giant plastic wrap and everything was tethered solidly in place. No sweat.

I had a drink before opening the trailer once we arrived because the freeway up the central valley was more or less one unending pothole from hell. Happily, in spite of the violent rattling, everything arrived just as it was stowed. (Stress test for the babies as well as mommy too!)

…And nothing melted either. We traveled on a cool rainy day… which was lucky because one of my fears was that the heat inside the trailer would exceed the low melting point of PLA and we’d have nothing but piles of yellow sticks upon arriving. >.<

SET-UP

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With more to show, I figured it was worth requesting a larger central location away from the chaos of the tesla stage… OH, and barriers. We were pleased to have been assigned an excellent spot in the middle of the dark room that had ideal visibility. On top of that, we sorta lucked out because Arc Attack wasn’t even there this year… which means I didn’t have to wear my Ryobi headphones to keep my brain from melting.

From the get go… we engineered our installation to function as a fort capable of fitting two people comfortably inside. So when you look at these pictures, imagine me sitting on a stack of moving blankets with a table, fridge and laptop around me. That’s right, we made a DELTA ROBOT IGLOO. And it was the coolest part about our installation this year…

THE SHOW

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Due to the fact that our installation was automated rather than interactive (and completely caged in by barriers), Mark and I didn’t have to babysit the deltas and actually got to walk the rest of the show!

Here is Mark’s tour of all of the neat stuff in the dark room this year:

Instead of having our robots run slave to a Kinect, which has only been grounds for trouble in the past… Mark figured out how to control all of the robots as light fixtures in a pieces of DMX software called QLC+. This enabled us to orchestrate ‘shows’ consisting of preset motion and light patterns that the robots would circle through all on their own.

As for feedback, who wouldn’t like a mountain of dancing robots with twinkling light? Our display went over pretty well with the attendees… and we had a couple of fun moments in the limelight getting interviewed by press and the like.

TEARDOWN

Once everything was said and done, we loaded the pallets up onto a pushcart, four at a time, and walked them out to the trailer in the parking lot (which expedited the deconstruction part). I was sad to see our nest get dismantled, but eager to get to the Bringahack dinner and have another drink.

This trip was infinitely less stressful thanks to some better planning and all the help we had from our friends. (Thank you!!!) I have great memories to immortalize through illustration over the next few weeks. I’ll also be posting about the fate of Noodle soon.

❤ Thank you for being with me on the summit of my shit mountain. It’s taken a lot of support and sacrifice from the world to pull this into reality for which I am extremely grateful.

Robot Army : Shipping at Last

Much to my dismay… I woke up last week to find that it was September. While I struggle to remember where the summer went, I think I’ll make myself a cup of chai and recap whats been going on in the past month or so.

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The most exciting thing to take place was our dry run at SYN Shop. We invited a small number of people who preordered kits back in February to be the first to pick up their newly adopted robots in exchange for testing out our instructions. Everything went smoothy, however I’m still sitting here editing the instructions… and I’m tired of looking at them. ::shakes fist:: As much as I thought I had boiled down the steps… I need to expand several of them out even more to make absolute sure that people can’t skip or misread them.

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It’s taxing >.< I definitely need to do a little research next time before I dive into producing a visual guide to see if there is a recommended method for capturing images at consistent perspective views. I ended up having a massive CAD document where all of the steps are positioned with a zillion copies of all the molded parts… which works, but there is so much now that it’s confusing and difficult to sort through.

The last thing to finish off before we began boxing things was the software (of course). We figure a large percentage of the people who bought our kit will never bother to update or reflash the code on the brain, so we want to make sure it’s exceptional. For the entertainment of those who will only ever run their delta in auto mode, each DIP switch setting will contain a different emotion… happy, sad, caffeinated, and kill (yes, “kill” is an emotion if you’re a robot). Programming a delta robot to emote is a huge challenge though, especially when you only have three degrees of motion to work with. Mark and I have been mulling over the code with “Testie” or faithful test delta, for a few hours every day trying to figure out the nuance of each; a matter of tailoring subtlety.

We finalized the code on Saturday… and by the end of yesterday had the first 50 boards burnt, bagged, and added to the boxes with all the other things.

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So yeah… the master bedroom has been turned into our mailroom (it is under renovation anyhow). All of the individual assets come together here and are getting sealed up with shipping tape at last!!!

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After we push out the first 50 kits, it’s a matter of rinsing and repeating the boxing processes four more times…! Not too bad!

The one thing that might slow us down a little (because there is always something) is that Mark has been called to work every day this week due to some major changes taking place in areas where he’s needed. This leaves me alone finishing off the last of it all : shipping labels, bubble wrapping, and giving the website a good makeover.

I can’t possibly express in writing how excited I am to finally be sending the kids out into the world. I’ve been suffering from this weird form of anxiety lately… which stems from having all this creative energy, but forcing myself not to focus it on anything because of all the work we’ve needed to do… it’s like constipation. I am really glad that we did the Kickstarter, but man will it be nice to have my free time back to develop other projects.

Lesson learned : Kickstarter is a great way to gain exposure and raise money to bring an idea into the world… BUT, however long you believe its going to take to reach fulfillment (even if you really REALLY plan) expect for it to take twice as long. The last 10% turns out being the last 90% of it all… you just don’t know it yet. Things that you write off in your mind as a non-issue expand out into several bullet points worth of extra things to manage or take care of. Don’t think for a moment that “All we have to do is…” or “It won’t take that long to…” – Those things require attention and energy too. It’s all a gigantic sacrifice, as fulfillment will prevent you from perusing other ventures. As a creative person with a mind going a zillion miles an hour – you will spin out… like me! ::spins::

That is my wisdom to pass on. Again, SO glad I have done it – but SO happy for it to be nearly over.