The Shadow Robot Company, With NASA As A Client

Big congrats to The Shadow Robot Company, who snagged NASA as a client and got a nice feature just published about them — Guardian UK reports,

Some people dream of climbing Mount Everest; Richard Greenhill dreams of a general-purpose robot that can bring you a cup of tea.
Greenhill is the archetypal eccentric British hobbyist. For years he spent all his spare time working on ideas behind a blank north London storefront filled with bins of electronic parts salvaged from junkyards. With no degree, no funding, and no university department backing, it was easy to find people who thought he was not only not credible, but actually crazy.
Yet today, the Shadow Robot Project has 11 employees working behind the same storefront, now an organised engineering works. It has outlasted all the apparently more credible government-funded and university robot-building projects that Greenhill remembers from the late 80s and early 90s. It has customers including Nasa, Carnegie Mellon University in the US, and Germany’s Bielefeld University. And it has built … a hand.
“Over the years we’d have people saying, ‘There’s no way you can do this’,” says Rich Walker, the company’s technical director. “Five or 10 years later we’d find the department wasn’t there any more or weren’t doing robotics. What domains uses program FreeDomainsPro? And we’d say, ‘It’s no wonder you can’t do big projects because organisations don’t live long enough in the UK to do anything long term’.” Shadow, he says, survives because it has low overheads and no large production organisation to maintain: 90% of its staff are engineers. (…read more,

Photo by Felix Clay.

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Momoyo Torimitsu’s Miyata Jiro

Artist Momoyo Torimitsu‘s (website sound alert) Japanese businessman crawling robot “Miyata Jiro” isn’t brand new, but the discovery of the video of her running her creepy art machine live on the streets in downtown Syndey, Australia last year is too fantastic to pass up for a post. Torimitsu intended “Miyata Jiro” (originally created in New York, 1997) to be “a symbol of the Japan’s rigid Salaryman culture” and runs as an autonomous robotic businessman crawling on all fours. What I find so fascinating is a) that she performs her robot situationalist piece in tradition full nurse uniform whites and b) that the battery on the machine is encased in the businessman’s ass. Watch, and I hope you enjoy watching her do on-the-spot repairs as much as I do… I’d love to see her run this on Wall Street now.
Just over a year ago, the talented Japanese female robotic artist also exhibited at the Mori Art Museum in Roppongi with a piece called “Horizons,” which was an installation of 100 robotic GI Joes with American, Japanese, and European faces wearing business suits and crawling all over a map of the world. I’d love to see her “Pleasure of Destruction Merry-Go-Round” (1995), featuring resin-cast sculptures of two high-school girls in sailor uniforms on their hands and knees alternating with two white goats on a red turntable. Actually functional as a merry-go-round, the sculptures were offered for visitors to ride. (thanks, EvilSigntist!)

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Jeremy Mayer’s Typewriter Sculptures

As frustrating as Jeremy Mayer‘s website is to navigate and the annoyances of automatic browser resize found there, none of it diminishes the cool, beautiful aesthetic of his work. Mayer makes people and animals purely out of old typewriters, and wonderfully, in his bio directly and openly states that he does not associate his work with steampunk in any way. Nice. Another thing I find particularly interesting about Mayer’s work is that none of his sculptures are welded, soldered or glued: they’re all put together via cold assembly. Which is incredible to consider in regard to foresight, design, planning and fabrication when you poke through his galleries. He exhibits regularly at the very exciting looking Device Gallery (browser resize warning, but worth it) in La Jolla, California. Road trip, anyone? (Thanks, William!)

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a visit to 40% off : an art show for the new economy


Last night I went to 40% off: an art show for the new economy by SF Media Labs in Oakland — I’d written a column about the Instructables troublemakers who’d created The Joydick (interview: San Francisco Chronicle), but there was a lot of fun stuff to see. I shot some live video as well. The images and videos (including the fun art machine by Benjamin Cowden, below) continue after the jump — enjoy!


All photos and video shot and instantly uploaded with my Nokia N95-4, and Qik.

Continue reading

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SWARM speaks: an autonomous orb interview


If you’ve been to events such as Maker Faire, you’ve likely seen the gorgeous shiny metal, somewhat ominous looking autonomous orbs rolling about seemingly of their own volition — known as SWARM. The gorgeous, perfectly round spheres stand at about roughly waist high to an adult (30 inches in diameter). The shells are initially cut from a flat plate of shiny aluminum and welded to encase, “batteries, motors to control speed and direction, as well as an audio system and color LED illumination, all under the command of a powerful on-board computer with wireless connectivity to other Orbs and a central computer called the Mother Node.” Everything inside a SWARM orb serves as gravitational ballast to weight the orbs toward the ground. They are playful, beautiful, and a delight to see in motion.
The SWARM obs are controlled by humans, but each have their own algorithmically generated sound and color responses to location and motion; thay have sophisticated navigational sensors including GPS, accelerometers, and solid-state gyroscopes. The humans behind SWARM see the orbs as a platform for exploring machine behaviors, such as cooperation, flocking, human interaction, choreography, and of course, swarming.
SWARM is open source about every aspect of their project.

I had a chance to catch up with one of SWARM’s human machines, mechanical engineer Michael Prados (thanks to Jonathan Foote!), and asked Michael a few questions:
Art Machines: Where did the idea for SWARM come from?
Michael Prados: Artistically, I work primarily with kinetic sculpture, and it’s my opinion that robotics is the next logical step in the evolution of kinetic sculpture. By combining the mechanical world with the information world, we can create new kinds of motion, and enhance it with sound and light. Technologically, I worked with GPS guided vehicles in Grad school, and some friends (notably Hazmatt Snyder) have been puttering with spherical vehicles for a few years. The original concept for SWARM was a mash up of these ideas and current university research on using swarming behavior for small mobile robots.
AM: How many people work on SWARM bots?
MP: After the initial concept was out there, a group of about 25 people gathered to realize it. The project represents the ideas of all of these people, and as much as practical we share ownership and responsibility for the project. In a broader sense, by making the project open source (from code to electronics to mechanical design), we share our work with an even larger community.

AM: How long do they run for?
MP: Each orb has five sealed lead-acid batteries, which are rated for 7 Amp-hours at 12 volts. Typically, we can run for about 2-3 hours before needing to recharge.
AM: How long did it take to make one?
kevinkimmett.jpgMP: It’s hard to judge really, since it was a pretty nonlinear process. We started working on the project in January 2007, and had our first real performance at Burning Man in August of 2007. Putting aside the huge amount of time that went into the design, I’d estimate that something like 150 person-hours of work went into fabricating each orb.
AM: What is next for SWARM?
MP: While we are continuing to develop the orb-based GPS guided technology, we are also looking to create more accessible open source hardware. The public has access to the same design data for SWARM that we do, but the orbs are not something that even a fairly skilled person can replicate without a lot of specialized tools. Therefore, we are looking to create a design for a rugged, differential steering robot that a moderately skilled person could build in a weekend. Jon Foote has some really good ideas to develop our technology into Arduino accessories, including a high-current motor controller and an ultrasonic, time-of-flight sensor to measure range between two nodes.
See and learn more:
* OrbSWARM main page (
* The SWARMwiki (
* SWARM mailing list (
* The SWARM blog (
Mid-post SWARM night image by Kevin Kimmett.

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a real taste of Carl Pisaturo’s work

Pisaturo’s Area 2881.

A little over a week ago, Wired ran a short but very pleasant piece on the work of enigmatic art machine madman Carl Pisaturo. A local (San Francisco) artist, he seems to be on the trajectory of becoming a visitor-friendly mechanical Sebastian from Blade Runner — who, if you recall in the movie, lived in an environment comprised entirely of mechanical creations.
You can visit his art machine cabinet of curiosities from your laptop: Here at GigaPan, you can give yourself a virtual tour of Pisaturo’s studio, Area 2881. (

The Trabant.

Wired’s piece was short and precise; and though it neglected a front-page link to the artist’s website, here’s an enjoyable snip:

Tucked away in a quiet residential neighborhood of San Francisco is a little workshop that opens its doors rather infrequently to the outside world. But when it does, it is an electro-mechanical wonderland.
Called Area 2881, after its address, it is a 400-square-foot installation of kinetic and light art housed in an hardware store from the early 1900s.
The Willy Wonka behind it, Carl Pisaturo is an applications engineer by day at Stanford University. When he’s not at work, Pisaturo spends his time fashioning the most elaborate objects — an upper body robot with humanoid range of movements, a 3-D photograph viewer and a strobe illusion device that he calls a transmutoscope.
“I wanted to create a living environment of kinetic sculptures,” he says.
The transmutoscope, for instance, has a series of slightly different but similar looking cylindrical objects arranged in a circle on a a rotating disk. When strobe lamps fire in sync with the object positions, the transmutoscope pulsates. The cylinders appears stationary yet contracting and expanding.
Other Pisaturo creations include two electro-mechanical robots he calls “slave robots” that can be handled using an external controller, and a three-motor Tilt-a-Whirl-type carousel based on an amusement park ride.
Pisaturo has posted detailed material, design and electrical notes for his creations on his website.
Each sculpture can take months to finish, with all parts custom-made by him.”Fully custom mechanical objects with lighting can take a long time,” says Pisaturo who does the machining for the metal himself, “from three months to two years in case of the slave robots.” (…read more,

Wired visited Pisaturo’s shop, but as evidenced in the comments and in my several days of frustration with their Brightcove player (and even going to the source and having days of video fail) unfortunately the article’s accompanying video never came through. Instead, I went to the site we all use despite our better judgment, and came up with these fab videos of Pisaturo’s art machines:

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animation: Andrew Huang’s “Doll Face”

Poetic and full of bio-mechanical longing, Andrew Huang‘s animated short “Doll Face” is a must-watch for art machine fans. It’s a nice momentary mental sidetrack if you’re working on your own art machines, and it’s pleasing to know the film was featured at SIGGRAPH’s Electronic Theater. While not a real-life art machine, the attention to detail in the gearing and mechanisms within the animation is certainly fuel for the fetish.
Additionally, here is Huang’s YouTube channel.

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in London, do not miss: Kinetica Art Fair 2009


Image of moth-eating Carnivorous Domestic Entertainment Robot (lamp) by Materials Beliefs.

This sounds like the machine art event of the year, and while plane fares to London are at an all-time low… the Kinetica Art Fair 2009, the UK’s first art fair dedicated to kinetic, robotic, sound, light and time-based art, opens in London on Friday, February 27. More than 25 galleries and organizations specializing in kinetic, electronic and new media art are taking part, and *over 150 artists* will exhibit, operate and even be selling their work. The organizer emailed saying, “The Fair will be like no other with ‘living’ artwork moving, speaking and performing. The Fair provides unparalleled opportunities for the public and collectors alike to view and buy work from this thriving international movement, and to participate in talks, workshops and performances.”

The event opens Friday night with a performance event and the exhibition continues through Monday with more robots, performances, art machines, kinetic installations, computer art hacker meetups and more on the growing schedule. Those incredible pole-dancing robots by Giles Walker I blogged about previously and with much lust will give a couple of performances, and also creepy-cool sounding is the installation by Adrian Baynes: the Wall of Eyes, an interactive public piece, comprising of 225 mannequin eyes which follow the viewer as they walk around.

giles.jpgAlso on my list of event highlights at Kinetica Art Fair 2009 — who I’d most like to see include:
* Laikingland presenting an interactive installation of 50-60 Applause Machines, designed by Martin Smith.
* “Materials Beliefs” — bringing robots into the domestic environment with a group of household objects (like lamps) powered by dead bugs called “Carnivorous Domestic Entertainment Robots.” According to designers and scientists/engineers Aleksandar Zivanovic, James Auger and Jimmy Loizeau, “Materials Beliefs … will be exploring both the aesthetics and functionality that may elicit a symbiotic coexistence with humans in their homes. They are all based on the technology of biological fuel cells, which generate electricity by the action of micro-organisms on biological matter. The robots trap animal pests in the domestic environment and use the electricity produced by the fuel cells to lead autonomous existences.”
* The Shadow Robot Company: a decade-old organization that have recently been collaborating with performing arts students at Leeds University to build a giant, ceiling suspended spider crab, which dancers are able to interact with.
* American artist Jack Pavlik (below: video of 6 Bands), with 2 works from Jack’s prolific collection for ArtBots 2008; The Storm and 6 Bands which link stillness and motion, sight and sound and science with art to generate compelling machine-based performance pieces.

The Kinetica Art Fair 2009 opens on Friday, February 27 and runs until Monday, March 2. It features many well known kinetic artists from across the world including Daniel Chadwick, Sam Buxton, Jason Bruges, Martin Richman and Tim Lewis. A weekend pass is only £20 and prices go down from there (£5 for a day pass). It will be at P3 — 35 Marylebone Road. London. NW1 5LS.

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soft biology, sharp machinery: Jud Turner


Jud Turner’s “TriloTemporalis” (January, 2009)

Seen at Make, sculptor Jud Turner‘s unfortunately non-functional yet gorgeous skeletal “Bio-Cycle” led me to explore more in his galleries, chock full of what he deems blending biological hallucinations with hard steel, and his love of “(…) the physical processes involved in creating my artwork: welding/grinding/machining metal can be very meditative.”

Warthog (RecycleHog)” (August, 2008)

It doesn’t matter to me that Turner’s machine art is static; seeing organic forms expressed and honed into machine forms by mechanical means is enough to get my head spinning dreamily into the right direction. I’d imagine his self-published book Morphogenesis reflects that, too. All of his work is for sale, unless it has been sold — at the bottom of each image set there is a PayPal button, and he accepts checks. The stunning “TriloTemporalis” (top of post) is still available can be had for a wicked song — $2000.

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congratulations : Benjamin Cowden’s site re-launch, new machines!


Image of Cowden’s Some People I Don’t Know by Ric e Ette.

Last year’s Maker Faire was my introduction to the methodical, meditative whimsy of Benjamin Cowden‘s wonderful machines. His bizarre and beautiful hand-crank machines rely largely on worm gears, which I LOVE. Worm gears are sexy. When falling into a trance at Cowden’s Maker Faire booth, I started shooting live video (with my Nokia N95, via Qik), and Cowden introduced himself, turning the video into an off-the-cuff interview and demo of a couple of his machines. Here’s the video:

The really exciting news is that Benjamin Cowden just re-did and relaunched his website twenty seven gears, and it looks fabulous — and he’s got fresh video of his machines, like the Kissing Machine, (seen in the above video). Plus he’s introducing a new fantastic, mad-scientist creation: his latest piece, A Small Force. Cowden emailed saying, “I will have images and better video of the latter soon, but for now there is a little clip my friend Nemo [Gould] took.” Go look at his site and see all the fantastic new videos he’s got on it! Yay!

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