En-lightened Robots Put on Quite a Show

Winter 2007


Art has always been in the eye of the beholder. And for a handful of proud, upper-level engineering students, their hand-made robots recently put on quite a show.

The robotic performances, in a darkened laboratory in the Wyman Park Building on Halloween night, were the culmination of a month-long project for Mechatronics, a course taught by Allison M. Okamura, associate professor of mechanical engineering.

“The LightBots project allowed the students to use their knowledge of robotics to create a technologically challenging and creative system,” says Okamura.

The assignment was straightforward enough: Teams of students were asked to produce an art machine that would create a motor-generated light show in a darkened room. In addition, each robot had to use a sensor to respond to external stimuli.

The result: a fun, festive event, in which engineering students—outfitted in glowing necklaces—demonstrated the capabilities of simple robots that could do everything from dance to sense people to produce smoke rings. Joan Freedman, director of the Digital Media Center, had given the students a lecture on art and light to inspire them.

“The project was a lot of fun because we could think outside the box,” says Bobby Ng, a senior mechanical engineering major. “We had a clean slate.”

Ng and senior David Chow knew they wanted to use smoke to diffuse colored light. They came up with “Old Faithful,” a box-shaped robot that burped up multicolored smoke rings and was operated by a control wand. The clear wand contained an accelerometer, or gravity sensor, that turned lights on and off depending on the direction in which it was pointed. In all, Old Faithful could produce smoke rings in nine different colors. The whole project cost about $80—the upper budgetary limit Okamura had set.

Another team used a sonar sensor to get a glowing rope to dance in response to a waving hand. Senior mechanical engineering majors Josh Chang and Alican Demir designed a small car that rode back and forth on a track. If you placed your hand above the car, a glowing red rope began to wave wildly. “When your hand gets closer, the swinging motion increases,” explained Chang. “When your hand moves away, it slows and eventually stops.” The price tag for the project: just $45.

Another crowd favorite was a dancing robot, Tiny, named after Elton John’s “Tiny Dancer.” The clear acrylic robot was outfitted with eight tiny blue and amber lights and stood about 18 inches tall. Using three different sensors, Tiny could be made to bump and grind—somewhat spastically—to different musical beats. Thanks to a dial used to control movement speed, the robot could keep pace with everything from step to swing to salsa. Another switch controlled the lights. At one point, Tiny got going to a club track, prompting one observer to say, “Wow, I feel like I’m at a rave.”

“Normally in engineering we have to be so precise,” says senior Jonathan Lasko, a member of the Tiny team that also included senior Cassius Sims and graduate student Christopher Smith. “So it was fun to get our hands wet doing something more artistic.”