Course Project: Kinetic Machines for People

The projects are the core of this course: we want to design, build, and document devices which blend digital and physical processes to meet human needs in expressive or useful ways.

This year the theme is open-ended to support the variety of different situations created by remote collaboration during the Covid-19 pandemic. As a result, the testing context for your work will be your personal environment, and the primary audience will be yourself and your immediate community. But you may choose to design for yourself for others, or extend the testing to telepresence or communication via the network.


The primary objective is to create devices which engage human needs through the magic of computing embedded in mechanism.

These are intended to be research and exploration projects: the whole point is to learn something new, and no one is paying you for the result. Reasonable ambition is encouraged, so I’d like you to try new things, and failure is part of the process. However, I will attempt to guide you away from directions which I think are unlikely to succeed or require unreasonable levels of effort. But you are the ultimate arbiter of this: I won’t outright say no because I want you to learn to assess your own ambitions and skills and don’t want to stand in your way.

A guiding principle of the course is that all ideas can be rendered at all scales. Even if your idea is grand, there is certainly a core abstraction where the essential questions can be tested with simple prototypes.

The project will conclude with a revision that is purely in CAD and simulation. This will help us extend the learning goals beyond what we can manage to fabricate under current circumstances.


The purpose of the machine you build is up to you: it may be practical, notional, whimsical, aesthetic, or anything in between. But it must be able to serve an articulable human need. It must also actually work within the chosen scope, however modest.

The in-class brainstorming session provided several starting points for picking an idea:

  1. Games and toys: sparking joy.

  2. Personal assistant: something useful.

  3. Telepresence or remote assistance: connecting us together.

  4. Sculpture and culture: ambiguous inquiries, expressing emotion

The commonality is that the project serves a purpose of some kind; a pure technical demonstration isn’t sufficient.

A useful lens may be to focus on creating engagement. There are many ways to invoke engagement, including delight and curiosity. Delight can come from any number of things: a moment of delicious surprise, wonder, amusement, something sensory and stimulating, something memorable or mysterious, perhaps something social or loving, something comforting or chaotic. Curiosity is the follow-through: is the experience open-ended enough to allow a user to find their own path? Is there a way a user or viewer can apply their own creativity or expression?

The central question we are trying to answer in the course is how the secret sauce of computation can be embedded into machines to bring them alive. There is a central tension between software and transparency; computation is an essentially invisible process, a black box. But we see what it does, so the role of computation can be elucidated by focusing on behavior; we are concerned with how our machines move and act to reveal their hidden processes.

Don’t be afraid to keep it simple; making the right connection between cause and effect in a clear and empowering way can be very delightful.


Students will work in pairs throughout the process. The nominal project sequence follows:

  1. collaborative ideation

  2. writing a proposal statement

  3. drawing a paper design

  4. materials acquisition

  5. proof-of-concept fabrication

  6. initial testing

  7. prototype revision and fabrication

  8. evaluative testing and documentation

  9. future concept design and drawing

  10. final critique

  11. final documentation

Metrics of Success

A key element of the discussion process will be identifying metrics for evaluating the success of each project stage. Quantitative metrics are a useful tool, but can be difficult to measure with respect to human interaction. Qualitative metrics will help establish the framework for critique. These may come from the discourse of art, design, and product engineering.

Technical Requirements

Our goal is to produce a working proof-of-concept device, not necessarily a market-ready or gallery-ready experience. There are many problems related to engineering for production which will lead you far astray from the scope and intent of this course. That said, actual hands-on testing will be more successful if attention is paid to robust construction.

  1. The project should blend computation and mechanism; that’s the whole point of the class.

  2. The emphasis should be on movement; the point of the class is to consider kinetic systems. However, sound and light can be useful accessories.

  3. The project must actually work; this is not just a occasion to test mockups or non-functional prototypes. (This has not generally been a problem.)

  4. It would be best to stick with a level of mechanical fabrication at the level of hand-cut or laser-cut cardboard or plywood to support rapid iteration, and I can help you design for flat parts. But this is not required; if you have access to other fabrication resources no method is out of scope.