UIST 2015 Student Innovation Contest: Animatronics

UIST 2015 Student Innovation Contest: Animatronics

For 2015, the UIST Student Innovation Contest takes on a cause. Schools and museums are starting to offer experimental Animatronics classes where kids build furry robotic animals and use them to tell amazing stories. These courses blur traditional lines – between art and engineering, between the virtual and physical worlds – all while demonstrating the universality of creativity across disciplines. Everybody learns how to write stories, build mechanisms, program motions, provide voice performances, etc. In this way, kids see how it all works together, and it has a way of inspiring kids to see new career possibilities.

One challenge for these courses has been the lack of good software tools. Professional animatronics authoring and show control packages have considerable cost and unnecessary complexity. Standard mechanical design tools are similarly problematic. For these classes to grow beyond a small number of well-funded, expert instructors, we need easy-to-use, open source software. Our contest partners for this year are teachers deploying animatronics in their classrooms right now, who want to see software and hardware innovations to broaden the stories their high schoolers can tell.

Each team will receive a kit of parts including servo motors, cables, controller, power supply, and a stage puppet to animate. Using these parts, teams will be able to build their own animatronic characters to demonstrate the tools they create. We will also be providing an SDK that demonstrates how to talk to the controller using a common file format. All teams will be required to open source their efforts, and will be encouraged to build on each other’s work.

The simplest animatronics shows consist of one servo and one audio track: the servo moves a character in time to the speech. Complexity increases as more servos and more audio tracks are added, allowing multiple characters to interact. But how are the characters’ movements created? For example, could puppet motions be authored by demonstration using a Kinect or by moving the puppets directly? How is the audio scripted? Perhaps a high-level storyboarding tool, with actions and voice tracks attached to boards, could help. And how do things get more complicated when audience interaction is involved, creating non-linear stories and integrating sensors? How do we best support multiple characters interacting with each other? “Macros” for animatronics could be implemented, for example to ensure that characters display a “breathing” animation at all times that they aren’t specifically programmed to do something else. Programming is within reach of today’s high school students, but creating UIs for animatronics storytelling can support more complex narratives, and there are scores of possibilities for new UIs!

On the hardware side, animatronic puppets are, at their heart, mechanical! Their skeletons are built from standard-size servos and (often) aluminum, but the customization possibilities are infinite. 3D printing or laser cutting can create unique character parts, like snap-on eyes or arms. They can also help define the structure of the animatronics skeleton: could there be a tool for drawing desired motions and calculating the 3D printed parts and servos needed to make them? Or a tool to match a puppet body to a set of servos and parts that could make its motion look natural? What sorts of hardware components could facilitate emotional displays in puppets; can we create “emotion kits” for sadness, happiness, or anger?

Read more and register here!

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