Inflatable Robotics

I recently saw a cool article and video (below) on a new project from Other Lab, one of the most interesting groups in the Bay Area robotics scene.

The video gets into some inflatable robotics work that they are doing, with some really interesting potential applications around human-safe robots and medical robotics. However, what I found most interesting were some thoughts from Otherlab co-founder Saul Griffith on the impact that engineers can and do have on the world around them. The topic of how and how meaningfully we as engineers can affect the world really resonates with me and I am happy to see it get discussed in a larger forum. I couldn’t agree more with Saul’s challenge to all of today’s (and tomorrow’s) engineers: keep dreaming and stretching your notions of what is possible. The world is a canvas with infinite possibility for improvement and beauty.

Rubik’s Cube Bot

How cool are Rubik’s Cubes? They are a simple puzzle with virtually infinite possibilities (there are over 43 quintillion – which is 18 zeros – permutations, but who’s counting?). They lend themselves to a variety of different skill and patience levels – people can start by solving one face at a time and work their way towards completion from there. Their appeal is reflected in their status as the best selling toy of all time, having reached nearly 400 million sold since their invention in 1974 by Erno Rubik. A few other interesting facts (via Wikipedia):

- Competitions have been held in events including blindfolded solving, solving the cube underwater in a single breath, and solving the cube with one’s feet
- The development and study of solution algorithms has been the subject of considerable effort but it took until July 2010 for it to be proven (by a team including Tomas Rokicki and Google researchers) that “God’s Number” (i.e. the minimum number of steps in an algorithm that is guaranteed to solve any possible configuration) for a 3x3x3 Rubik’s Cube is 20
- The current world record is 5.66 seconds, by Feliks Zemdegs

The last bullet brings me to my reason for writing this post – I recently heard about the CubeStorm II, which set a new world record for solving a Rubik’s Cube (5.35 seconds). Created by David Gilday and Mike Dobson, it is a pretty cool system for several reasons. First of all, it is made using Legos, another entry on my short list of favorite toys. Second of all, it uses an Android smartphone as its eyes (vision capture to sense the cube’s state) and brain (algorithm optimization and actuator control). Without getting too deep into the (impressive) specifics of the robot’s design and implementation, I wanted to emphasize how great it is that we have such powerful tools that are so readily available to us. There was a time in the not-so-distant past when implementing this type of system would have required a breathtakingly expensive array of equipment; the fact that it can now be done with children’s toys and a device that the majority of people carry around in their pocket is amazing to me. This drastic improvement in hardware capability available to the general public for a relatively tiny cost, typified by the rise of smartphones like the one used in the CubeStorm II, is a huge factor in the on-going democratization of design. The world and man’s creative capacity continue to be less and less limited by the cost and scarcity of hardware, which opens the door for quintillions of possibilities. A world bounded only by our imagination sounds pretty good to me – and, like any good toy, it should excite the child in all of us.


“Well sir, there’s nothing on earth
like a genuine
bona fide
- Lyle Lanley

In keeping with the gyroscope theme from my last post, I wanted to highlight an interesting application space for inertial tilt sensors: monorails! If you’re like me, all of your mental associations with that word revolve around The Simpsons but there is actually some cool history around this idea, as well as some excellent contemporary mechatronics projects.

A gyroscopic monorail is essentially a train that runs on a single rail and uses the gyroscopic properties of spinning wheels to balance. Theoretical advantages of a monorail as compared to traditional bi-rail trains include sharper turns (because the cars will automatically bank during bends, which also eliminates lateral centrifugal acceleration) and the suppression of hunting oscillation (basically swaying of the rail cars arising from the interaction of inertial and adhesion forces). Furthermore, track gauge mismatch issues can be avoided. However, the downside is that all the cars require a powered gyroscopic system to stay balanced.

In practice, full size gyroscopic monorails never progressed beyond prototypes, although several people worked on the idea in the early 20th century. However, there are several contemporary projects working on small-scale systems that are pretty cool. In particular, Youtube user AkubiLR has posted a number of interesting videos documenting a series of prototypes and experiments; including these two of his prototype #11 both balancing statically and running at speed.

The monorail didn’t work out for Springfield on TV but continual improvement of inertial sensor performance and decreases in price mean that maybe someone will revisit this space a little sooner than we think. All aboard!

Robot Swarms or Flying Cars?

Shortly after Akbar’s recent post on Robot Swarms, I came across this video about the future of the flying car. It takes a whole new angle that I’ve never considered. What a great way to take an emerging technology in a new direction. Just one more step towards the Jetsons.

Squishy Circuits

I get really excited when I find groups making electronics more accessible, more interactive, and more fun for young people. Squishy Circuits is using homemade playdough to make prototyping and exploration easy. It’s fun, simple, and a great way to facilitate learning. Playdough has come a long way since I was young; all my playdough did was act like playdough. Check it out:


I saw this video a few months back and enjoyed it – a great way to show that cool robotic systems need not use hyper-specialized or expensive components.

I thought it was an opportune time to share this since the Bay Area Maker Faire is coming up on May 21-22 at the San Mateo County Event Center. The Maker Faire is the best showcase I’ve seen for DIY projects, from mechatronics to art to clothing and beyond. It is a diverse collection of creative, interesting and cool projects, many made on a hobbyist basis, by some of the smartest people you’ll find anywhere.

I was originally going to describe some of my favorite sights from previous years but quickly realized the list was too long. Suffice to say, every year I go I am surprised anew at the passion and cleverness of the participants. It is well worth checking out and hopefully I will see some of you there.

Arduino Geiger Counter!

A company called Libelium has developed a new add-on (“shield” in Arduino speak) that lets you turn your Arduino into a Geiger counter. Scary that all of a sudden this seems like a good idea. Read more about it here.

Wearable Electronics

Not exactly what I mean.

One of the things I have been excited about lately is the burgeoning area of wearable electronics and e-textiles. Despite the sad fact that the Tron guy might get more mainstream coverage than anyone else in the field, there are actually a bunch of really exciting (and useful) projects in progress around the world. Additionally, although there is certainly some advanced work going on at institutional levels, wearable electronics as a field lends itself well to do-it-yourself (DIY) hacker culture and many of the projects that have grabbed me recently have not come out of corporate or educational behemoths. It is exciting to see cutting edge advancement in a field happen so democratically and I think it bodes well for electronics and smart products more generally that so many people are able to do such great work.

Things have been pretty busy here the last few months; when I started this post I meant to time it for release around the New York Maker Faire eTextile Fashion Show, but I missed that by about 6 weeks. The site is still worth checking out though – it links to some of the people and projects who were there. Anyway, I still want to highlight some of the areas in wearable electronics that have some cool work going on. If you are intrigued by any of these projects, dig a little more – this is the lightest possible scratch on the surface of the space. The Talk2MyShirt blog is a great place to start.


Integrating electronics into clothing in the service of aesthetics (“In matters of cloth he is as fickle as can be / Cause he’s a dedicated follower of fashion”) can be one of the simplest but most accessible forms of wearable electronics. From the sound-responsive equalizer t-shirt you saw someone wearing at the dance club to so-called haute tech fashion (get it?) like Angel Chang’s dress with heat-sensitive ink used to hide a map of Manhattan in the fabric of the dress itself, designers are pushing boundaries at the intersection of clothing, art, fashion and technology.


Wearable electronics is also progressing along more practical lines. Bio-monitoring clothing such as a smart baby monitor onesie that allows parents to monitor their baby’s biometric data and even emotional state from a cellphone or computer is approaching market and offers a wealth of possible uses. Or, consider products like the Frontline Gloves, designed as a gesture-based communication tool for firefighters to use in smoky, low-visibility situations. On a simpler level, there are a wide range of garments available that integrate cell phones, mp3 players or headphones with varying levels of seamlessness.

Where To Next?

In addition to continued progress in the directions designers are already moving, there is one advance on the horizon that I expect to fundamentally change the landscape of wearable electronics (as well as consumer electronics and smart products in general). That area is power harvesting. Right now, nearly all personal electronics, both wearable and otherwise, require frequent recharging of their batteries. However, imagine a world where batteries are recharged automatically as you go about your day. This could happen through harvesting mechanical energy associated with walking around, thermal energy associated with your body, solar energy, or even stray electromagnetic energy from the electronic communication-saturated world in which we live. As the above types of technologies become sophisticated enough to provide meaningful amounts of power, the spectrum of possibility will vastly expand. I can’t wait to see what people come up with to take advantage of it.

The Arduino Keeps Popping Up

I came across a blog post about the Arduino yesterday on an industrial design blog, Core77. I was definitely surprised to see an entire post dedicated to the Arduino, an open-source electronics and embedded software platform which targets DIY’ers and non-engineers who want to build/hack smart products, on a blog that focuses primarily on product and industrial design. The Arduino is getting great exposure and keeps popping up in places I wouldn’t expect. I’m excited the conversation about and accessibility of smart product design is spreading.

Why I’m Excited

The Arduino provides scaffolding for outsiders and non-embedded system designers, to understand and explore smart product design. It doesn’t matter what your experience or skill level is, Arduino provides an extremely accessible interface for people to get started, from both a hardware perspective and a software perspective. The electronics come packaged and ready to go, with easy to use connectors and easy to understand labels. Several vendors even provide drop-in electronics, called shields (click for a list of shields), which provide specific functionality (ie motor control) to the user with little effort. The free software interface provides a level of separation and simplification from the Microcontroller (MCU). Users have access to easy-to-understand functions and don’t have to familiarize themselves with specific registers and modules of the MCU.

People you wouldn’t expect are getting their hands dirty and cool things are happening. The internet is ripe with cool projects people have put together on their own and there are a ton of project examples and project guides to get people involved. Everyday people are building their own smart products!

Why This Matters To Me

Most importantly, the discussion is finally spreading to people in different walks of life! The exposure allows people who aren’t necessarily engineers to see the possibilities available in smart product design. Different perspectives can easily join the brainstorm. I’m convinced more wild and crazy ideas will be born, not only in garages but also in the office. Ultimately, better products will be designed.

And hopefully the realization of what is possible with a simple open source tool will lead people to imagine what is possible from a professional service firm (ahem Pocobor) and the value we offer. If nothing else, it helps me describe what I do and how technology is being incorporated into new products we use in our everyday lives.

Get Involved

We’ve even put the board in an open source project, called PedalOn, we’re completing for a client to allow customers to modify or rewrite the system software. We’ll talk more about this project in the coming weeks.


An Arduino is even inside PedalOn, a Pocobor project.

I encourage anyone not directly involved with smart product design to get their hands on one of these and start playing. The barrier to entry is low; you can get one for less than $30 from Sparkfun. Or try another distributor – for a full list of distributors look here.

LEGO House

Recently I have been using LEGOs to prototype a gearbox for one of our clients. Every time I dig into a box of LEGO parts and hear that familiar rustle of plastic components, I am struck by how useful LEGOs are for creating rapid models of mechanical systems. And while I normally use LEGOs to build smaller-than-life models of larger systems, a group in England is constructing a full-size house, complete with LEGO shower and toilet, from millions of LEGO blocks! Seriously! Check out more here.

I am very interested to see how they incorporate LEGO’s “Mindstorms” robotic technology into the house. I can imagine motion sensing light control and a LEGO HVAC system powered by a Mindstorms computer. Of course, they may have bigger issues to worry about, such as waterproofing the roof.