Artists and Robots Collaborating

                                              The Geomagic Touch X, by 3DSystems

                                              The Geomagic Touch X, by 3DSystems

Though the intersection of the fields of robotics and fine art might seem unlikely, there is an increasing number of artists, designers, and engineers working between these areas. Many of these innovative creators are interested in exploring the relationship between man and machine, as well as pushing the boundaries of art itself. 

What is the potential for collaborations between robots and human artists? AMT Lab contributor Yasmin Foqahaa recently spoke with Yeliz Karadayi, a Carnegie Mellon University student working with a team of creators in the 2016 Robot Art Contest. Read on to see their discussion about the project and the future of robotics and art.

Yasmin Foqahaa: How did you learn about the 2016 Robot Art Contest and what encouraged you to apply?

Yeliz Karadayi: My group was working on this project for a human robot interaction course that we were taking, so that’s where we started. Our group consisted of Robert Zacharias, a student in the Emerging Media masters program; Kim Baraka from the Robotics program; Sue Baykal, a Psychology and HCI major; and myself, a student in the Masters of Tangible Interaction Design program in the architecture department.

Kim Baraka is part of the robotics department, and someone reached out to him through the department about the contest. We all found each other at the beginning of the class; we had to each stand up and introduce ourselves and talk about what our interests for the group project which we would be working on for the rest of the semester. I was there to identify a group to help me with my thesis project that I was working on, and these were the three students who talked about doing work that was similar to what I was interested in, which was focusing on the artistic process with robots and technology and how we perceive ourselves in that interaction. So when we heard other students talking about this interest in making art with technology, and considering new tools or interactions for art, we immediately noticed that in each other. When it came time to pick a group we all went straight to each other.

Yasmin Foqahaa: Can you describe the project you are working on and how you are integrating the arts in your project?

Yeliz Karadayi: I was working on my thesis project on creative applications for 3D printing. The haptic feedback device was the result of researching the best way to introduce control in a free form drawing experiment with a 3D printing pen. The Geomagic Touch robot was purchased for that thesis, and we are using now the same robot but with a new software that we developed. We were also able to reconstruct the robot arm, replacing the haptic pen with a paint brush. Doing so means that now you can paint while the device provides haptic feedback that we could program and control.

Yasmin Foqahaa: Most people probably don't associate the fields of Arts and Robotics. How do you think these two disparate fields engage with each other?

Yeliz Karadayi: You’re right, most people don’t usually associate arts and robotics, but there is a growing trend. I took a few classes that revolved around this in the CMU architecture department, such as courses about the craft of machine fabrication and how you can take advantage of that. A lot of what comes out of machine fabrication are these perfect, smooth surfaces, and there’s a focus on form rather than the craft or how it was built. Because of that there's a growing movement exploring new ways to think about machine fabrication, and that’s what inspired me to get into that way of thinking and interested in research concerning haptic feedback devices.

There does seem to be a disparity between the way people think about fabrication when they think about it through technology versus when they think about how they do it personally. I thought that it might be interesting if we could take advantage of the strengths of machine fabrication. These are accuracy, speed, the ability to make a digital model and then be able to copy-paste it, making small changes in the computer and fabricate it again.

But there is the fact that it’s a lot more immersive to be able to touch and feel what you are making, and having this more intimate relationship with your design.  There are those advantages of machine fabrication but then there is also the creativity and intimacy of the human process of making, having that personal touch.  The best way to integrate them together is to have a machine with real-time feedback, which allows you to have full control and is available as needed, unlike the way you think of how we use fabrication robots today, which is typically a big robot arm that is scary to be near and you’re not supposed to be in the room with it running. The haptic feedback device provides the opportunity to make it a little bit friendlier and welcoming—something that you can actually touch and that sits accessibly on your work table. We are trying to create a situation where people can feel more comfortable with machine fabrication as a part of the creative process, not just a technical fabrication process. Through our user studies we are trying to find out how people feel about interacting with the robot and whether they see it as a creative experience the way we designed it.

Yasmin Foqahaa: What specific technology tools and systems are you using?

Yeliz Karadayi: Haptics are really difficult to explain; it’s hard to understand unless you experience it. The robot arm is called the Geomagic Touch, made by 3D Systems. What happens with this robot when you are holding the pen, or in our case the paint brush, is that you’re freely able to move that brush around any way you want within the limits of the robot’s arm. The robot provides force against your hand to emulate the sensation that something is there. In essence, there’s a virtual 3D world, and this world includes points, lines, surfaces, and volumes. The haptic robot can see that world and emulate its existence into the device you’re interacting with, so as you’re moving your paint brush around (as through the brush is the cursor in the virtual world) and because your cursor cannot move past the digital model’s surface, the robot arm will exert an opposing force, making it feel like the model is physically there. So this is the capability of the haptic feedback device.

What we did is actually write our own custom script so that you could draw anything into your computer (such as a 2D image) and it will output that as a system of points. Then, the script uses those points to relate to the brush as though it’s a drawing on the table, so if your brush gets close enough to the drawing, then it will attract the brush and guide it along that line.

You are not alone in this design process anymore, you are here with this thing that is speaking to you through its behavioral properties.

We implemented the code for that, such that you have this drawing that a system parses into a series of points, and then finds the relationship from each of those points to the tip of the paintbrush, and if you’re close enough, push along to the next point in the series. This was all written in C++ using a great API provided by 3DSystems, which we were able to work with to create our own custom software.

Yasmin Foqahaa: What can artists and organizations learn from this project?

Yeliz Karadayi: I think that right now people tend to see technology as a tool and because of that they tend to take a lot of responsibility for the outcome of what they are creating, and potentially ignore their own bias. Our team noticed that the tools you use actually have a huge impact on the final result, and more than it just being a tool, it becomes a collaborator that’s almost working with you, helping you figure it out as you go. You are not alone in this design process anymore, you are here with this thing that is speaking to you through its behavioral properties. Like you could say paint, pen, or graphite, they all behave differently and that really influences your work, the level of detail or the general quality, look, and feel of a design. Right now I think with the growing intelligence of technology you can really see how there is potential for a collaborative effort with technology were you can provide it with some level of intelligence and responsiveness and together with that kind of a system, you can create things that a person could not have discovered themselves. This is the ultimate goal we are trying to prove here. Technology is no longer a tool; it is a collaborator. We should open up our minds to that, and think about what technology is capable of doing with us instead of what it’s capable of doing in place of us.

Yasmin Foqahaa: To what extent where you interested in humanizing your project?

Yeliz Karadayi: We had discussed giving the robot anthropomorphic features, but we decided to stay away from that. At this time, we want to know how people perceive themselves when they interact with pure robots. Our interest lies in understanding people’s personal perceptions of creativity when working with technology that’s more than a tool. We decided that anthropomorphizing the robot would skew people’s perceptions of working with the robot if they are humanizing it and thus relating to it. We know there’s potential value there, but the complexity of it was beyond our scope for this study.

Yasmin Foqahaa: How do you envision the future of robotics and art?

Yeliz Karadayi: I’m interested in this idea of collaboration and that robots don’t have to be dumb machines that do exactly what we tell them. Because robots have all these capabilities that we do not in regards to efficiency, accuracy, and perfection. They also have the ability to limit us in some way. Creativity thrives under limitations and when we think of art it feels so unlimited that it hard to ground yourself. As we know, having some limitations helps the creative process. The future of robotics lies on our capability to provide a scaffold around which creativity can be built. The future of robotics and artists is a collaborative process in which robots feed and artist’s thinking, and even responds to it.