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Architecture

SCI-Arc's Robot House: Rapidly Making Your Arty Bohemian Lifestyle Obsolete

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Thu, Oct 13, 2011 at 1:05 PM

click to enlarge Robots Live Here. - PAUL T. BRADLEY
  • Paul T. Bradley
  • Robots Live Here.
Robots. They're kicking our asses at Jeopardy, they're taking our jobs, and they're hanging out on Mars while we have to settle for hanging out in fake dive bars with scenesters. Now robots are making our art, so pack up your bags, designers and artists, your careers are finished (unless, of course, you design robots).

Ok. Sorry. Let me start over with a more factual statement. Some robots are being trained to do digital design work now. The design-savvy robots in question are part of Southern California Institute of Architecture's (SCI-Arc) Robot House and they're around for the repetitive and extremely detailed movements that human artists find tedious or impossible. So your life of quiet painterly desperation and locavore vegan cocktails is safe for the time being.

click to enlarge Robots at Rest. - PAUL T. BRADLEY
  • Paul T. Bradley
  • Robots at Rest.

On a recent scorching October afternoon at Robot House, the robots were quiet...for now (well, it's still early in the semester, after all). We caught up with Robot House Manager Naz Ekmekjian as he and a couple of students played around with robot software. The work they're doing now is more like the hacking and cracking and programming that will make the robots better function for design purposes. "We're basically using open source software, since most current robot software is proprietary." Ekmekjian says.

Ekmekjian has the sacred task of keeping the robots under lock and key -- safe from the destruction they might wreak on humankind, if they also weren't bolted to the floor and totally incapable of independent locomotion. Wait a minute, what kind of robots are we dealing with here?

The Robot House is the brainchild of architects and SCI-Arc faculty Peter Testa and Devyn Weiser. In conjunction with Swiss mechatronics company Staubli and the Fletcher Jones Foundation, they got six robots and put them in a lab space at the end of SCI-Arc's massive compound in downtown L.A. These robots are actually more like giant multi-elbowed arms with an infinite number of hand / tool-end possibilities. They range in size from full-human to toddler-sized and they are basically the robots that many factories currently use to assemble cars and delicate electronics.

Ok, fine. So these aren't Terminators, creepy Björk video sex-bots, or even Roombas. In fact, all of these machines are under complete human control. "They're designed for repetition and precision," Ekmejian explains. This, in the field of digital design and free-form fabrication, facilitates building amazing things that clumsy non-360-degree-rotating human hands can't. These are basically really sophisticated tools that can be plugged into laptops and programmed to build, cut, assemble, poke, prod, anything really...just faster, stronger and more precise than humans can.

click to enlarge Robot Remote Controls. - PAUL T. BRADLEY
  • Paul T. Bradley
  • Robot Remote Controls.

Can they be, y'know, plugged into game controllers and made to do other kinds of human bidding? "Oh yeah," Ekmekjian explains, "we've plugged in a Microsoft Kinect...which is basically a 3D digital imput...so the robots can mimic human motion." Seems like this might not have strictly design-oriented applications.

click to enlarge Why are you running away, human? We just want to help you cut that composite foam.
  • Why are you running away, human? We just want to help you cut that composite foam.

I'd love to come back and actually see these bots later in the semester when students have given them more direction and some design work to do. Right now, they still seem kind of ominously still.

Either way, teaching robots to be artistic or to do design functions can't be all bad. They offer an incredible range of possibilities and a pretty amazing future of uses. Plus, when they are capable of independent locomotion, they'll at least be cultured, right? In that sense, I, for one, welcome our new design robot overlords. And if you're a designer or an artist worried about your career prospects? Start evolving more elbows.

Follow @PaulTBradley and @LAWeeklyArts on Twitter.

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