Start Your New Career In Robot Dance Choreography

Boston Dynamics loves showing off their robots with dance videos. Every time they put one out, it ignites a discussion among robot enthusiasts debating what’s real versus merely implied by the exhibition. We really want to see tooling behind the scenes and fortunately we get a peek with a Spot dance choreography session posted by [Adam Savage]’s Tested team. (YouTube video, also embedded below.)

For about a year, the Tested team has been among those exploring a Spot’s potential. Most of what we’ve seen has been controlled from a custom tablet that looked like a handheld video game console. In contrast, this video shows a computer application for sequencing Spot actions on a music-focused timeline. The timer period is specified in beats per minute, grouped up eight to a bar. The high level task is no different from choreographing human dancers: design something that can be performed to music, delights your audience, all while staying within the boundaries of what your dancers can physically do with their bodies. Then, trust your dancers to perform!

That computer application is Boston Dynamics Choreographer, part of the Spot Choreography SDK. A reference available to anyone who is willing to Read The Fine Manual even if we don’t have a Spot of our own. As of this writing, Choreography SDK covers everything we saw Spot do in an earlier UpTown Funk dance video, but looks like it has yet to receive some of the more advanced Spot dances in the recent Do You Love me? video. There is a reference chart of moves illustrated with animated GIF, documented with customizable parameters along with other important notes.

Lowers the robutt down and back up once. Lasts for one beat (4 slices). Author’s note: I’m sorry.

We’ve seen a lot of hackers take on the challenge of building their own quadruped robots on these pages. Each full of clever mechanical design solutions that can match Spot’s kinematics. And while not all of them can match Spot’s control systems, we’re sure it’s only a matter of time before counterparts to Choreographer application show up on GitHub. (If they already exist, please link in comments.) Will we love robots once they can all dance? The jury is still out.

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Hackaday Links: January 10, 2021

You know that feeling when your previously niche hobby goes mainstream, and suddenly you’re not interested in it anymore because it was once quirky and weird but now it’s trendy and all the newcomers are going to come in and ruin it? That just happened to retrocomputing. The article is pretty standard New York Times fare, and gives a bit of attention to the usual suspects of retrocomputing, like Amiga, Atari, and the Holy Grail search for an original Apple I. There’s little technically interesting in it, but we figured that we should probably note it since prices for retrocomputing gear are likely to go up soon. Buy ’em while you can.

Remember the video of the dancing Boston Dynamics robots? We actually had intended to cover that in Links last week, but Editor-in-Chief Mike Szczys beat us to the punch, in an article that garnered a host of surprisingly negative comments. Yes, we understand that this was just showboating, and that the robots were just following a set of preprogrammed routines. Some commenters derided that as not dancing, which we find confusing since human dancing is just following preprogrammed routines. Nevertheless, IEEE Spectrum had an interview this week with Boston Dynamics’ VP of Engineering talking about how the robot dance was put together. There’s a fair amount of doublespeak and couched terms, likely to protect BD’s intellectual property, but it’s still an interesting read. The take-home message is that despite some commenters’ assertions, the routines were apparently not just motion-captured from human dancers, but put together from a suite of moves Atlas, Spot, and Handle had already been trained on. That and the fact that BD worked with a human choreographer to work out the routines.

Looks like 2021 is already trying to give 2020 a run for its money, at least in the marketplace of crazy ideas. The story, released in Guitar World of all places, goes that some conspiracy-minded people in Italy started sharing around a schematic of what they purported to be the “5G chip” that’s supposedly included in the SARS-CoV-2 vaccine. The reason Guitar World picked it up is that eagle-eyed guitar gear collectors noticed that the schematic was actually that of the Boss MetalZone-2 effects pedal, complete with a section labeled “5G Freq.” That was apparently enough to trigger someone, and to ignore the op-amps, potentiometers, and 1/4″ phone jacks on the rest of the schematic. All of which would certainly smart going into the arm, no doubt, but seriously, if it could make us shred like this, we wouldn’t mind getting shot up with it.

Remember the first time you saw a Kindle with an e-ink display? The thing was amazing — the clarity and fine detail of the characters were unlike anything possible with an LCD or CRT display, and the fact that the display stayed on while the reader was off was a little mind-blowing at the time. Since then, e-ink technology has come considerably down market, commoditized to the point where they can be used for price tags on store shelves. But now it looks like they’re scaling up to desktop display sizes, with the announcement of a 25.3″ desktop e-ink monitor by Dasung. Dubbed the Paperlike 253, the 3200 x 1800 pixel display will be able to show 16 shades of gray with no backlighting. The videos of the monitor in action are pretty low resolution, so it’s hard to say what the refresh rate will be, but given the technology it’s going to be limited. This might be a great option as a second or third monitor for those who can work with the low refresh rate and don’t want an LCD monitor backlight blasting them in the face all day.

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Boston Dynamics’ Dancing Bots Beg For Your Love A La Napoleon Dynamite

How do you get people to love you and sidestep existential fear of robots eclipsing humans as the solar system’s most advanced thinking machines? You put on a dance routine to the music of Berry Gordy.

The video published by Boston Dynamics shows off a range of their advanced robots moving as if they were humans, greyhounds, and ostriches made of actual flesh. But of course they aren’t, which explains the safety barriers surrounding the dance floor and that lack of actual audio from the scene. After picking our jaws up off the floor we began to wonder what it sounds like in the room as the whine of motors must certainly be quite impressive — check out the Handle video from 2017 for an earful of that. We also wonder how long a dance-off of this magnitude can be maintained between battery swaps.

Anthropomorphism (or would it be canine-pomorphism?) is trending this year. We saw the Spot robot as part of a dance routine in an empty baseball stadium back in July. It’s a great marketing move, and this most recent volley from BD shows off some insane stunts like the en pointe work from the dog robot while the Atlas humanoids indulge in some one-footed yoga poses. Seeing this it’s easy to forget that these machines lack the innate compassion and empathy that save humans from injury when bumping into one another. While our robotic future looks bright, we’re not in a rush to share the dance floor anytime soon.

Still, it’s an incredible tribute to the state of the art in robotics — congratulations to the roboticists that have brought use here. Looking back eleven and a half years to the first time we covered these robots here on Hackaday, this seems more like CGI movie footage than real life. What’s more amazing? Hobby builds that are keeping up with this level of accomplishment.

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Hackaday Links: November 22, 2020

Remember DSRC? If the initialism doesn’t ring a bell, don’t worry — Dedicated Short-Range Communications, a radio service intended to let cars in traffic talk to each other, never really caught on. Back in 1999, when the Federal Communications Commission set aside 75 MHz of spectrum in the 5.9-GHz band, it probably seemed like a good idea — after all, the flying cars of the future would surely need a way to communicate with each other. Only about 15,000 vehicles in the US have DSRC, and so the FCC decided to snatch back the whole 75-MHz slice and reallocate it. The lower 45 MHz will be tacked onto the existing unlicensed 5.8-GHz band where WiFi now lives, providing interesting opportunities in wireless networking. Fans of chatty cars need not fret, though — the upper 30 MHz block is being reallocated to a different Intelligent Transportation System Service called C-V2X, for Cellular Vehicle to Everything, which by its name alone is far cooler and therefore more likely to succeed.

NASA keeps dropping cool teasers of the Mars 2020 mission as the package containing the Perseverance rover hurtles across space on its way to a February rendezvous with the Red Planet. The latest: you can listen to the faint sounds the rover is making as it gets ready for its date with destiny. While we’ve heard sounds from Mars before — the InSight lander used its seismometer to record the Martian windPerseverance is the first Mars rover equipped with actual microphones. It’s pretty neat to hear the faint whirring of the rover’s thermal management system pump doing its thing in interplanetary space, and even cooler to think that we’ll soon hear what it sounds like to land on Mars.

Speaking of space, back at the beginning of 2020 — you know, a couple of million years ago — we kicked off the Hack Chat series by talking with Alberto Caballero about his “Habitable Exoplanets” project, a crowd-sourced search for “Earth 2.0”. We found it fascinating that amateur astronomers using off-the-shelf gear could detect the subtle signs of planets orbiting stars half a galaxy away. We’ve kept in touch with Alberto since then, and he recently tipped us off to his new SETI Project. Following the citizen-science model of the Habitable Exoplanets project, Alberto is looking to recruit amateur radio astronomers willing to turn their antennas in the direction of stars similar to the Sun, where it just might be possible for intelligent life to have formed. Check out the PDF summary of the project which includes the modest technical requirements for getting in on the SETI action.

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The Adorable Robot Spot, Now In Affordable Form

If you’ve been following the Boston Dynamics project Spot, you’ve seen its capabilities and how we’re starting to see it being used in public more since its official release last year. But in a true display of how hobbyist electronics have been evolving and catching up with the big companies over the past few years, [Miguel Ayuso Parrilla] shows us his own take on the walking robot with CHOP, one of the finalists in this year’s Hackaday Prize.

CHOP is a DIY quadruped robot that works much in the same way as Spot, although in a smaller form-factor and, perhaps most impressive of all, a bill of materials that can be all acquired for under $500. The entire project is open source, meaning that anyone can built their own version of it with off-the-shelf parts and some 3D printing. If you can’t get the hardware however, you can still play with the PyBullet simulation of the mechanics that were used during the debugging process.

Running the show are two main components, a Raspberry Pi 4B and an Arduino Mega. While the Mega interfaces with the servo controllers and provides filtering for sensors like the inertial measurement unit, the Pi takes all that data in and uses a series of Python scripts in order to determine the gait of the robot and which way the servos should move through an inverse kinematics model. To control the direction in which the body of the robot should accelerate, a Bluetooth remote controller sends commands to the Raspberry Pi.

We’re excited to see home-grown projects rise to this level of complexity, which would be mostly unheard of a few years ago in the maker scene, and only presented by large tech companies with tons of money to spend on research and development. There are other quadruped robots to inspire yourself on than Spot though, like this one with a spherical design and fold-out legs. Check this one in action after the break.

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Hackaday Links: August 2, 2020

If you somehow manage to mentally separate yourself from the human tragedy of the COVID-19 pandemic, it really has provided a fascinating glimpse into how our planet operates, and how much impact seven billion people have on it. Latest among these revelations is that the shutdowns had a salubrious effect in at least one unexpected area: solar power. Researchers found that after the Indian government instituted mandatory lockdowns in March, output from solar power installations in Delhi increased by more than eight percent. The cause: the much-diminished smog, which let more sunlight reach solar panels. We’ve seen similar shutdown-related Earth-impact stories, from decreased anthropogenic seismicity to actually being able to see Los Angeles, and find them all delightfully revealing.

Remember Google Glass? It’s hard to forget, what with all the hype leading up to launch and the bitter disappointment of realizing that actually wearing the device wouldn’t go over well in, say, a locker room. That said, the idea of smart glasses had promise, and several startups tried to make a go of combining functionality with less out-there styling that wouldn’t instantly be seen as probable cause for being a creep. One such outfit was North, who made the more-or-less regular looking (if a bit hipsterish) Focals smart glasses. But alas, North was bought out by Google back in June, and as with so many things Google acquires, Focals smart glasses are being turned off. Anyone who bought the $600 specs will reportedly get their money back, but the features of the smart glasses will no longer function. Except, you know, you’ll still be able to look through them.

It looks like someone has finally come up with a pretty good use case for the adorably terrifying robot mini-dogs from Boston Dynamics. Ford Motors has put two of the yellow robots to work in their sprawling Van Dyke Transmission Plant in Michigan. Dubbed Fluffy and Spot (aww), the dogs wander around the plant with a suite of cameras and sensors, digitally mapping the space to prepare for possible future modifications and expansions. The robots can cover a lot of ground during the two hours that their batteries last, and are even said to be able to hitch a ride on the backs of other robots when they’re tuckered out. Scanning projects like these can keep highly trained — and expensive — engineers busy for weeks, so the investment in robots makes sense. And we’re sure there’s totally no way that Ford is using the disarmingly cute robo-pets to keep track of its employees.

We all know that the Linux kernel has some interesting cruft in it, but did you know that it can actually alert you to the fact that your printer is aflame? We didn’t either until  Editor-in-Chief Mike Szczys shared this reddit post that details the kernel function lp_check_status and how it assumes the worst if it detects the printer is online but also in “check mode.” The Wikipedia entry on the “lp0 on fire” error message has some interesting history that details how it’s not as implausible as it might seem for a printer, especially one in the early 1970s, to burst into flames under the right conditions. A toner fuser bar running amok on a modern laser printer is one thing, but imagine a printer with a fusing oven running out of control.

And finally, because 2020 is apparently the gift that can’t stop giving, at least in the weirdness department, the US Department of Defense let it slip that the office charged with investigating unidentified aerial phenomena is not quite as disbanded as they once said it was. Reported to have been defunded in 2017, the Advanced Aerospace Threat Identification Program actually appears to live on, as the Unidentified Aerial Phenomena Task Force, operating out of the Office of Naval Intelligence. Their purpose is ostensibly to study things like the Navy videos of high-speed craft out-maneuvering fighter jets, but there are whispers from former members of the task force that “objects of undetermined origin have crashed on earth with materials retrieved for study.” All this could just be a strategic misdirection, of course, but given everything else that has happened this year, we’re prepared to believe just about anything.

SoftBank Robots Pinch Hit For Baseball Cheerleaders

Grand venues of spectacle to entertain audiences has long been a part of history, but such tradition is highly problematic at the moment in the light of the pandemic. Some sports leagues are testing the waters with a soft restart by playing only to a broadcast audience, leaving the stadium empty. Many experiments are in progress trying to liven up an empty stadium and this is where SoftBank saw an opportunity: as a multinational conglomerate that has both a baseball team and a robotics division, they called a team of robots to cheer-leading duty.

Some clips of the cheerleading squad in action have started circulating. A few people may greet the sight with an indifferent shrug, but most tend to fall to an extreme: either finding them hilarious or react with horror. It is only natural to have a strong reaction to such a jarring sight.

Spot was only available for sale recently, and we admit this was not the type of task that came to our minds. Pepper has a longer track record and this is not Pepper’s first baseball game. The humanoid robot has been around long enough to raise questions about a robot’s role in society from unionization to sex work. We haven’t made much progress answering those questions, and now we have even more questions that the lightweight SoftBank Robotics press release (in Japanese) didn’t try to answer.

When people fret about “robots taking our jobs” the conversation doesn’t usually involve sports team cheerleaders, yet here we are. Welcome to the future.

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