Want robots to be musical, creative, and expressive?
Better brush up on your engineering. Musician/
roboticists Dan Paluska and Jeff Lieberman
constructed a web-connected “robotic mechanical
orchestra” that plays a marimba by firing rubber
balls out of a cannon, strikes traditional percussion
instruments, and also rubs mechanical fingers along
wine glasses. The machine, Absolut Quartet, uses
artificial intelligence to creatively riff on melodies
composed remotely by users on the web.
“At the core, the machine is just motors, metal,
and software,” say the MI T alums. “However, the
design of these elements gives the whole machine a
‘personality’ and this is what allows a creative dialog
to exist between the machine and the online user.”
Of course, that dialog can’t just work once — it has
to work over and over again. The guys wanted the
technology to “disappear,” leaving a purely creative
experience. But that meant making 3,000 custom
parts and 10,000 stock parts work in harmony.
And then there are the 500,000 custom rubber
balls firing a 4-meter arc onto the keys.
“For any reasonable maintenance, this can only
fail roughly 1 in 10,000 times,” the duo explains.
They tried four fundamentally different shooting
mechanisms before they found one that worked —
springs and a rotating arm.
They then consulted an engineer to settle on
magical, maintenance-solving ingredients such
as polyethylene glycol dimethacrylate, which they
used to make the suede fingers resonant. But they
also needed the skills of a professional glass harpist
so they could get 35 tuned wine glasses.
“Being both musicians and roboticists, we have
always been interested in combinations of the two,”
say Paluska and Lieberman. In the finished work,
centuries-old percussion and glass armonicas
meet modern industrial robotics. Musician/inventor
Benjamin Franklin, who built the first glass armonica,
would have been proud. —Peter Kirn
Absolut Quartet: absolut.com/absolutmachines
>> The Build: bea.st/sight/absolut
Photograph by Jeff Lieberman
18 Make: Volume 14