Metal Machine Music

I’m always interested in people’s side projects, where they combine their engineering skills with labors of love. My musical taste also runs distinctly towards the loud end of the spectrum. This can be a common source of complaint from the other Pocobytes after a day where I’ve grabbed control of our speakers. So when the video below was brought to my attention, I was pretty thrilled with the results. Adding force feedback to playing an instrument is an interesting way to change the performer’s experience. It’s even packable, as he recently played a concert in San Francisco. The following video does feature loud, industrial inspired music, as well as some minor cursing, so headphones are recommended.

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.

Today’s Factory Automation

Building on my post a few months ago that looked at pre-WWII automotive manufacturing technology, I thought it would be interesting to contrast that with some state of the art (post-millennium) technology. I recently saw the below video, which is a fascinating look at a literally transparent Volkswagen plant in Dresden, Germany for the Phaeton.

The idea behind the factory is that customers and the general public can see the whole assembly process for the cars and (presumably) marvel at the level of quality and technological sophistication being used. It actually is a beautiful facility and, in typical German fashion, everything is always precisely in its place.

Amongst the features of the factory that I found particularly cool were the autonomous part delivery sleds that bring components to the assembly line, the inductive charging (from the floor!) of the part tracking modules, the inventory and progress tracking system itself (which registers when each individual bolt and other component is added), and the electric assembly lift. All in all, the factory is a great example of how far personal transportation manufacturing has come over the past 80 years. I have no doubt that it will be amazing to see where things stand after the next 80 years as well – bring on the flying cars.

Invisible Car

In what is actually a fairly clever marketing gimmick, Mercedes-Benz created an invisible(ish) car for a campaign to boost awareness of their F-Cell hydrogen fuel cell technology prototype (zero emissions = invisible to the enviroment…). My thoughts on fuel cells are a whole other post but I was really interested to see how they pulled off the invisible effect. As you can see from the video, the car is not truly invisible (and is pseudo-invisible only from certain angles) but it is pretty cool experiment nonetheless.

The car is modified with an LED array mounted over the driver’s side of the car and a camera assembly on the passenger side that can transmit the picture from “behind” the car (from the perspective of someone standing off the driver’s side) to the LED array. The idea is that the light waves hit the observer’s eyes from behind the car as if it were not there to block/reflect/etc. any of them. Invisibility systems taking this approach have been an active area of research in defense and other fields for many years and have become fairly sophisticated, particularly for static systems (both object and observer). However, when either the observer or the object (or both) are moving, the problem of sensing and transmitting the appropriate picture with the correct directionality becomes much more difficult.

Even though the car is not truly invisible, the application is effective enough to accomplish the goal for this situation. Look at the faces of the people who see the car… they are surprised, impressed, curious, excited. The car is noteworthy, interesting and cool, and I think that is the biggest takeaway for me. Although Mercedes did not care about boosting the profile of mechatronics with this campaign, they took advantage of technology’s ability to intrigue and inspire people. Mechatronics has the potential to change the world in both meaningful and fun ways, but it requires fuel – engineers, capital, and belief, among other things. Showcase projects like this one can be extremely useful as a way to get people excited about its potential and to encourage people to become engineers or support new technology.

In any case, it’s always nice to see ideas make the leap from science fiction to the real world… eat your heart out, James Bond.


“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!