Twitch Plays Battling Robots?

Audience interaction reached an all-time high in 2014 with Twitch Plays Pokemon, an online gaming stream where viewers were able to collaboratively command an emulated Game Boy playing Pokemon Red. Since then, the concept has taken off. Today, we see this extended to robots in the real world, with [theotherlonestar]’s Twitch Chat Controlled Robots.

The build is one that takes advantage of modern off-the-shelf components – an ESP8266 provides the brains, while a Pololu Zumo provides a ready to go robot chassis to save time on the mechanical aspects of the build. An L298N dual motor controller then handles motive power.

The real ingenuity though, is teaching the robots to respond to commands from Twitch chat. The chat is available in a readily parsable IRC format, which makes programming around it easy. [theotherlonestar] created a command set that enables the robots to be driven remotely by stream viewers, and then outfitted the ‘bots with hammers with which to fight, as well as a fedora to tip, if one is so inclined.

It’s a cool build, and one which shows further promise as Twitch continues to reduce stream & chat latency. We look forward to seeing future battles, but the first one already excites.

Interested in where it all began? Check out our Twitch Plays Pokemon coverage from way back when. Video after the break.

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Emotional Hazards That Lurk Far From The Uncanny Valley

A web search for “Uncanny Valley” will retrieve a lot of information about that discomfort we feel when an artificial creation is eerily lifelike. The syndrome tells us a lot about both human psychology and design challenges ahead. What about the opposite, when machines are clearly machines? Are we all clear? It turns out the answer is “No” as [Christine Sunu] explained at a Hackaday Los Angeles meetup. (Video also embedded below.)

When we build a robot, we know what’s inside the enclosure. But people who don’t know tend to extrapolate too much based only on the simple behavior they could see. As [Christine] says, people “anthropomorphize at the drop of the hat” projecting emotions onto machines and feeling emotions in return. This happens even when machines are deliberately designed to be utilitarian. iRobot was surprised how many Roomba owners gave their robot vacuum names and treated them as family members. A similar eruption of human empathy occurred with Boston Dynamics video footage demonstrating their robot staying upright despite being pushed around.

In the case of a Roomba, this kind of emotional power is relatively harmless. In the case of robots doing dangerous work in place of human beings, such attachment may hinder robots from doing the job they were designed for. And even more worrisome, the fact there’s a power means there’s a potential for abuse. To illustrate one such potential, [Christine] brought up the Amazon Echo. The cylindrical puck is clearly a machine and serves as a point-of-sale terminal, yet people have started treating Alexa as their trusted home advisor. If Amazon should start monetizing this trust, would users realize what’s happening? Would they care?

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Learn Programming From Ants

Humans and insects think on a different scale, but entomologists study the behavior of these little organisms, so they’re not a complete mystery. There isn’t much intelligence in a single ant or a cubic millimeter of gray matter, but when they all start acting together, you get something greater than the sum of the parts. It is easy to fall into the trap of putting all the intelligence or programming into a single box since that’s how we function. Comparatively, itty-bitty brains, like microcontrollers and single-board computers are inexpensive and plentiful. Enter swarm mentality, and new tasks become possible.

[Kevin Hartnett] talks about a paper researching the simple rules which govern army ants who use their bodies as bridges when confronted with a gap in their path. Anyone with a ruler and a map can decide the shortest route between two places, but army ants perform this optimization from the ground, real-time, and with only a few neurons at their disposal. Two simple rules control bridge building behavior, and that might leave some space in the memory banks of some swarm robots.

A simpler example of swarm mentality could be robots which drive forward anytime they sense infrared waves from above. In this way, anyone watching the swarm could observe when an infrared light was present and where it was directed. You could do the same with inexpensive solar-powered toy cars, but we can already see visible light.

We’re not saying ants should be recruited to control robots, but we’re not objecting to the humane treatment of cyborg bugs either. We’ve been looking into swarm robots for a long time.

Thanks for the tip, [JRD].

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Sarah Petkus On Building A Cartoon To Go To Mars

Sarah Petkus is a robot mom (which means she’s the mother to a robot, not that Sarah herself is a robot, at least as far as we’re aware), whose child, Noodle Feet, is a character in Sarah’s graphic novel Gravity Road. Unlike every other robot on the planet, Noodle Feet is a content-based robot. Instead of robotic arms welding car panels together or 3D printers squiring out goo, Noodle Feet isn’t a robot built for a specific function. Noodle Feet’s design is derived from his personality in his graphic novel. In the graphic novel, Noodle Feet tastes with his feet, clambers over rocks, and explores his surroundings. That’s what the real-life version of Noodle Feet must do, and that means building the hardware to do just that.

Sarah has been working on Noodle Feet for about two years now, and last year she presented a talk about tasting feet and salivating toes. It’s odd, yes, but it is a fantastic exploration of what can be done with robotics.

This year, Sarah had the opportunity to be an artist in residence at ESA, where Noodle Feet could at least test out his dream of living on Mars. There, Noodle Feet played around in the ESA’s Mars yard, where he made friends with a copy of the ExoMars rover.

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GuitarBot Brings Together Art and Engineering

Not only does the GuitarBot project show off some great design, but the care given to the documentation and directions is wonderful to see. The GuitarBot is an initiative by three University of Delaware professors, [Dustyn Roberts], [Troy Richards], and [Ashley Pigford] to introduce their students to ‘Artgineering’, a beautiful portmanteau of ‘art’ and ‘engineering’.

The GuitarBot It is designed and documented in a way that the three major elements are compartmentalized: the strummer, the brains, and the chord mechanism are all independent modules wrapped up in a single device. Anyone is, of course, free to build the whole thing, but a lot of work has been done to ease the collaboration of smaller, team-based groups that can work on and bring together individual elements.

Some aspects of the GuitarBot are still works in progress, such as the solenoid-activated chord assembly. But everything else is ready to go with Bills of Materials and build directions. An early video of a strumming test proof of concept used on a ukelele is embedded below.

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Controlling a Robot Over the Internet Grows Up

Since the beginning of the Internet people have been controlling robots over it, peering at grainy gifs of faraway rec rooms as the robot trundles around. RunMyRobot.com has taken that idea and brought it fully into the teens. These robots use wifi or mobile connections, are 3D printed, and run Python.

The site aims to provide everything to anyone who wants to participate. If you’re just an anonymous visitor, you can still play with the robots, but anyone can also play with the same one, and sometimes a whole bunch of visitors create a cacophony of commands that makes it not fun—but you can always move to a different robot. Logged-in members of the site have the option to take over a robot and not allow anyone else to use it.

If you want to build a robot and add it to the site, the creators show how to do that as well, with a Github code repository and 3D-printable designs available for download, as well as YouTube instructions on how to build either the printed robot or one made with off-the shelf parts. They’re also looking for patrons to help with development, with the first item on their list being a mobile app.

Thanks to [Sim] for the link.

 

The Internet Of Interactive Cats

[Tuco] is a cat who shares the space of [Micah Elizabeth Scott]. He is a large tabby tomcat, and he is polydactyl, which is to say he has a congenital excess of toes. He is an extremely active and engaging creature and enjoys playing and interacting with her. We covet [Tuco].

Sadly for the rest of us who love cats, of course, unless we know [Micah] personally we’ll never have the opportunity to play with [Tuco]. She appreciates the cat-shaped void that will leave in our lives, and to help us she’s building a telepresence robot to allow the rest of us to interact with him in real time.

Her idea is to make a flying robot equipped with a camera on a gimbal, and because to mounting it on a multirotor platform would be a hazard, instead she’s making something closer to the aerial cameras you might be familiar with from sporting fixtures, a motorised platform suspended from the corners of her roof space on a set of nylon ropes, that can move at will by adjusting the length of each tether. It is suggested that one day the device will be able to launch plastic bolts for [Tuco] to chase and to incorporate other interactive features to allow online users to engage with him.

We are shown progress so far in the video introducing the project that we’ve placed below the break, she has completed a prototype windlass mechanism and worked on reverse engineering the gimbal mechanism for serial control. We’ll probably never meet [Tuco] in person, but we can’t wait to interact with him online.

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