Mechatronic Christmas

I was getting into the Christmas spirit the other day, and was on the search for interesting “smart” holiday sculptures/displays when I came across a Christmas cube that actively balances on only one of its vertices. A mechatronic Christmas tree, I totally want one of these! Be sure to watch the whole video to fully appreciate how large of a balancing Christmas cube-tree it is. Also, when I got to the end credits, I noticed my old Robocup professor was the lead designer, which was really neat to learn. You can learn more about his balancing cube project here.

Have a great holiday season everyone!

Mind Control Follow Up – Now With More Bicycles!

As regular readers of our blog will no doubt remember, we put up a post a few months ago about mind control. Hardware for using brainwaves to trigger action outside the body is becoming better and more ubiquitous every day and we noted that it would be fascinating to watch the different kinds of applications that people could come up with. On cue, I saw an article this week about a concept bike from Parlee Cycles and Toyota. The bike combines a number of technologies including a smart phone app, biometric performance monitoring, and Neurosky and Emotiv neuro-headset technology. In concert, the system allows the rider to track their performance and, most relevantly, shift gears by thinking about it as opposed to actuating a shifter by hand. While not meant for sale, it is nevertheless interesting as an example of how people are already starting to develop creative applications for this type of hardware… George Jetson would be impressed.

Just Twine it Together

A friend of mine recently sent me a link to a Kickstarter project that she thought I might appreciate. Well she was right. This project is from two engineers at MIT’s Media Lab who have created an amazing device that basically lets you connect anything to the internet, allowing you to create a “Web of Things” if you will. The interface looks pretty cool, I can’t wait to try one out. You can read more about it here.

Or better yet, check out their Kickstarter project page.

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:

Swarm Behavior

I recently saw this video of a starling flock murmuration (a collective swarming behavior). In addition to being an great example of how cool nature is, I found it fascinating as an example of emergent behavior.

Emergent or complex systems are those in which complex (and hard to predict) patterns arise out of interactions based on simple rules, without a central entity controlling or affecting the system properties. The sophistication and complexity of these systems is often unintuitive based on the simplicity of the governing rules. In nature, examples other than starling flocks include ant colonies or the weather. In the sphere of human interaction, the stock market or the development of cities can be interesting case studies (though both can be affected by central planning in some cases). Complexity, by Melanie Mitchell, offers an engrossing but still layman-oriented look into emergent systems in more depth.

Though I find emergent systems interesting in and of themselves, they are also tied to some potentially groundbreaking mechatronics research. Understanding how to model and eventually even control the collective behavior of decentralized, self-organizing systems could be instrumental in the development of more sophisticated artificial intelligence and other complex systems. The capability and robustness of systems that are not dependent on the existence of or communication with any centralized intelligence authority can far exceed more traditionally designed systems, whether it is a robot with a microcontroller “brain” or an army with a concentrated command team.

Robotic swarm behavior is a very active area of research; groups worth checking out include the Orb Swarm and Swarmanoid projects. It will be fascinating to watch progress in this field going forward – maybe the next remake of The Birds will use robots instead.