1.1. Course Description

16-375/54-375: Robotics for Creative Practice
MW 1:30PM-2:50PM
Hunt Library A5 (Fab Lab)
Instructor: Dr. Garth Zeglin (garthz)
IDeATe Studio Course for the Intelligent Environments and Physical Computing programs

This collaborative course brings art and engineering together to explore interdisciplinary practice at the intersection of drama, music, and robotics. This exploration is the key aim of IDeATe: we are developing practitioners who can utilize their expert domain knowledge effectively in collaboration with other disciplines. This involves developing both rigorous individual expertise as well as broad skills in negotiating other domain vocabularies.

The students in the course form one or more collaborative working groups developing performance machines culminating in a public performance. These machines use embodied behavior as a creative medium for storytelling and performance. Students are expected to learn new skills but also teach their own expertise. The technical portion of the course may include a number of techniques: pneumatic design, kinematics, feedback control, real-time programming, and machine choreography.

The course project generally revolves around the following question: what does it mean to be surprisingly animate? This phrase originally comes from a quip between roboticists [1] but suggests a number of subsidiary questions:

  1. What do we mean by animate?
  2. Can the quality of surprise endure?
  3. How do we create behavior without computation?
  4. How does embodiment change our perceptions of computation?
  5. Can a making machine be as expressive as its artifacts?

Each year the course develops a different theme. This year we will focus on the animate possibilities of robotic manipulation. The emphasis is on using embodied kinetic behavior as a narrative medium. The interaction of a machine and material evokes questions of the blurry boundaries between the synthetic and the natural, the self and the other, the animate and the inanimate. There are a number of possible approaches: the touch of a machine on familiar objects suggests narratives; pure play with raw materials suggests potentials; machines for speciality fabrication leave a durable outcome; etc.

[1]The full phrase, “a robot is a surprisingly animate machine!”, is attributed to David Grossman in M. Brady, “Editorial: Preface to the millennium special issue”, Int. J. Robotics Research 18, No. 11, 1051-1055 (November, 1999)

1.2. Learning Objectives

Upon completion of this course the students will be able to:

  1. construct pneumatically-actuated articulated structures using a kit of mechanical and structural components
  2. formulate a narrative goal as an interaction of a machine and material or objects
  3. apply basic closed-loop control techniques to implement, calibrate, and tune joint-level position control
  4. program a combined Max, Python, and microcontroller system to produce custom parameterized movement primitives
  5. program using basic state machines, feedback control, planning, and learning algorithms to create the illusion of life and agency
  6. collaborate with teams of artists, designers, engineers, and computer scientists to create performance technology
  7. use machine behavior as an artistic medium

It also incorporates the general goals of IDeATe to develop hybrid students with integrated knowledge in technology and arts. This stresses the following general skills:

  1. algorithmic thinking
  2. analytic thinking
  3. end-to-end concept execution
  4. communication through writing, drawing, and speaking
  5. attention to detail
  6. performance preparation
  7. professional preparation

1.3. Grading Rubric

Each assignment serves both learning and evaluative goals. Fulfilling the assignment is an essential step in the learning process, and the result also demonstrates learning success. Please take careful note of the requirements for each assignment: they represent a type of contract between student and instructor.

Everybody is assumed to start with an A in the course. If you do the work you will keep it, but failing to fulfill the expectations will cause you to drift downward.

The total grade in the course will be weighted approximately 75% for projects, 15% for exercises, and 10% for classroom participation and discussion.

1.3.1. Exercise Grading Rubric

The exercises are a combination of skill-building and technology exploration. The emphasis is on practical demonstration, so each culminates in a live demonstration of a performance or behavior. The primary feedback is verbal, and the grading is primarily on participation.

1.3.2. Project Grading Rubric

Projects are graded along a number of dimensions. The formal project assigments are graded using a detailed rubric spanning these categories:

  1. the artifact
  2. the performance
  3. the narrative concept
  4. the execution of the concept
  5. the analysis of the result
  6. the technical implementation
  7. the documentation