Spring 2020 Syllabus Addendum

Welcome to Human-Machine Virtuosity! For the Spring 2020 iteration of the Human-Machine Virtuosity (HMV) course, we are planning a field component at the new MuseumLab portion of the Children’s Museum of Pittsburgh.  The high-level objectives of the course remain the same; for these please refer to the syllabus page.

Spring 2020 Objectives

The core principle of the course is that students explore ‘hybrid’ design at the intersection of the physical and the digital by creating a novel design and production system. Students prototype a design and fabrication workflow, then apply it to producing a few sample artifacts. The physical component emphasizes the application of human dextrous skill.

The objective for the MuseumLab collaboration is to focus the projects on architectural interventions within the building.  The prompt for the students will be to develop a system which can produce site-specific 2D and 3D plaster artifacts for potential installation in the building.  A particular site of interest is the large arch in the central hall, and one or more project groups will be encouraged to use this location as a target site for plaster detailing.

In practice, the projects have generally been based on tools based we have in the dFAB lab:

  1. computer-aided design software, notably Rhino w/Grasshopper
  2. motion capture of gesture, both live and offline, using the dFAB Optitrack
  3. robotic fabrication using custom end tools on the dFAB ABB 6640
  4. CNC router fabrication
  5. laser-cutting fabrication
  6. linear and circular running molds
  7. polyurethane mold patterning
  8. robotic running mold paths

A secondary objective is developing a sample production system which could feasibly be replicated by the museum staff as an exhibit prototype.  This effort could be successful if the tools and techniques were constrained to those easily obtained or already available in the new on-site maker space.  This project would definitely not involve an industrial robot, but could involve basic standard machinery, Arduino-level electronic control, and mechanisms constructed using laser-cutter fabrication.

A final objective is to provide a final demonstration event toward the semester end at which the students show final artifacts, process documentation, and potentially process demonstrations.  Given that these are student projects, there is no guarantee the results will be suitable for permanent installation, but we plan to make artifacts available for temporary installation past the duration of the course.


All projects for the spring semester will focus on fabrication in plaster. It is a versatile architectural material with a rich history and body of technique. It can be a challenging target due to the relatively short working time, messy handling, and thermal and expansion properties. The course will utilize traditional running and pattern mold techniques, but in the context of developing novel hybrid workflows which make best use of digital tools and analog processes.

Site Visits

A tentative plan for whole-class visits:

  1. architectural survey visit early in the semester to see the building
  2. a mid-semester test/demo trip to try out and critique early work-in-progress results
  3. a late-semester demo trip to critique mature results
  4. a final show

Exhibit Development

A secondary objective is directing at least one project toward means and materials which could be further developed by museum staff into an exhibit. As an example, consider the possibility of a plaster running mold incorporating mechanical or robotic elements.¬† The traditional running mold uses a metal blade in a carriage sled which is operated back and forth by hand to build up a linear form with a particular profile.¬† A mechanized variant could incorporate cams, gears, or cable drives to produce programmable variations in the detailing. A similar example would be a plaster-forming¬† ‘spirograph’ which would use gear-driven blades to create configurable geometric patterning in a medallion.

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