Automata Examples

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Over the past several years of doing automata, we've developed some "classic" motion examples for participants to check out as they are starting to design their creations.

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On the old PIE pdf for cardboard automata we show five simple examples and dissect the motions behind them so that people can get inspired to take those mechanisms and build their own creations. However after working on the floor with automata for the past few months we've changed some of the "common" motion models and added some new ideas to the mix.


One example motion that we've been messing around with is the "up and down" mechanism. The original version of this one used a crank with the opposite orientation, two side bars, and a lever for the cam follower to rest on. This version has a couple disadvantages as it adds a lot of extra steps to the process and because the lever takes up so much space in the box, it makes it difficult to add more cam followers to the automata for extra characters up top.


Walter came up with a new version of the "up and down" mechanism based on some automata that he had made in the past. It has a curved cardboard cam follower that moves up and down with the off set cam but doesn't spin because of the flaps.


And to continue the innovation streak, Walter created yet another version of the up/down movement for his metautomata™ that uses the same cam but a different method of removing the spin. A little cardboard circle keeps the cam follower touching the top piece but is not directly connected. I love how many different solutions there are for the same problem and having this diversity to the examples can help facilitators choose the best way to help people solve their own problems.


Another new addition to our set of examples explores how to make the motion of the automata fast or slow. By changing the relationship of the size of the cam to the size of the cam follower, you can adjust the speed at which the top piece spins. These examples are a little extreme but serve to demonstrate the principle.

Nicole ended up using the idea of the simple example to make this beautiful and funny automata with two dogs "chasing their tails" at different speeds. The addition of springs to the cam followers also really gives the dogs' motion a lot of personality.


Sometimes, a new idea for an automata inspires us to think about a new example. I made this surfer riding a wave on a straw pivot in a really convoluted way as I was exploring the materials. The crank shaft with wire ended up working but was not the most clear way to produce the movement. However, something about the motion was compelling to people and we saw several visitors try to copy the design faithfully.

So Lianna build this automata model that simplifies the design and makes use of the new up and down example. We use the generic yellow arrows so that people can imagine what characters or scene goes with the motion. I think this works really well to give people a sense of the possibilities of linkages and pivots without providing an polished (or in my case unpolished) example for them to copy exactly.

Each of these new examples is directly the result of us spending time on the floor facilitating the activity and a great example of how our time on the floor influences aspects of the activity design. Our models reflect new ideas that visitors come up with. We try to demonstrate the motions in a way that is clear and easy to understand but doesn't give visitors direct instructions on how to build and leaves the activity open to new ideas and personal challenges.


Biological Motion in a cool piece of animation

Another project done by EUPHRATES that I’d like to share is an animated short film that they created with Masahiko Sato. This was made as a promotion film for a new fashion label "A-POC” (A Piece Of Cloth) by Japanese fashion designer Issey Miyake and shown in Paris Fashion Week in 2007. It is very simple: you see white dots and alphabets moving on the black background, which somehow we recognize as the movements of fashion models.

This was made based on the study about cognitive science, particularly using the knowledge of “Biological Motion,” which is a term by Gunnar Johansson (1973). Based on Johansson’s study, the members of EUPHRATES held several workshops with high school students to experiment with the visual phenomenon, where they attached small points of light at the joints of the human beings to see if they could get impressions of human figures moving.

They also showed us some other videos from their workshop, and we learned that the figure could be recognized even when it was with some irrelevant noise dots (sorry no video for that)! It was interesting. We’ve been doing stop-motion animation in the Tinkering Studio for a long time, but never messed around with various animation techniques. I would be fun to experiment to develop new animation expressions and techniques using knowledge from cognitive science and human perception.


Art of Tinkering Workshop – Day 3

Most tinkering workshops end with an epic, full scale, collaborative Chain Reaction, and this one was no different. We like to end on this because it brings the whole group together, and also allows participants to put to use all the skills they gained over the course of three days, combining circuits, switches, kinetic elements, and a strong aesthetic sensibility. Often it is easy to focus on the final set-off of the chain reaction, because it is such a raucous, joy-filled event, but all the really interesting work happens in the 3-4 hours before, when the energy is much more mellow, people are focused on problem-solving, and rapidly try ideas and solutions. So I strongly encourage you to check out the video above, which is the "making of…" the final chain reaction. Then take a look at the set-off video below, and keep going for some more images.

We typically seed each table with one or two objects from our extensive collection, with the mandate that the people working at that table have to use it in their contraption. Often this ends up shaping the entire problem space that is explored. In Mia and Angelica's case, the challenge of using a light-weight inflatable cactus dominated much of their investigation.

Walter got a creepy doll head, and immediately started thinking about height and how to raise it above the table.

The idea definitely spread to other tables, and Phillip, Trevor, and Emilyn took it to an extreme level, spending the entirety of their time working on a single contraption: a suspended football field that kicks a ball from one end to the other. In the end, it totally worked!

Likewise, Ashley and Molly were enraptured by the idea of making a duck cross a road, and structured their entire contraption around the theme of ducks, finding every possible type of plastic duck we have in our collection (which is a surprisingly large number…)

Sometimes, small but brilliant details get lost in the chaos of the final run. Tatian and Alex had a "caricaturist" robot activated during their contraption, who is drawing a caricature of creepy pizza face, the star of many a previous Chain Reaction!


Art of Tinkering Workshop – Day 2

The second day of our Art of Tinkering Workshop focused heavily on Light Play. We love to do this in a workshop setting because it is so driven by aesthetics and really forces participants to engage in a process of art-making. Often tinkering is conflated with the use of technology, and while that is a big part of what makes this work interesting and rich to explore, I think it is important to remind ourselves that there are lots of definitions of technology. After all, at some point woodworking, weaving, and fire were all cutting-edge technologies. Light Play is not only a beautiful reminder that tinkering can be rich with very low tech, but is also a meditative, self-directed, and collaborative art practice that contrasts the more energetic beginning and end of the workshop. You can get a flavor of the activity by watching the video above, and read some of the participants’ thoughts about it below.

20140730-aot_workshop_130“It’s interesting how you feel like you’re going back to being like a kid.” – Angelica

20140730-aot_workshop_133“We both feel quite entitled in this space, we went and got what we needed. For me all the tinkering is to get to that point; a good end game of facilitation is to get your participant to the point where they go get what they need.” – Emilyn

20140730-aot_workshop_142“I really like blue, but I ended up working with green, and it took me a while to be ok with that. But if I had worked with blue I would have wanted to make it really beautiful, so green allowed me to just play and be weird.” – Shirin

Once, again, let us know in the comments if any of these statements resonate with you and your experience with Light Play, or any other thoughts you have about it. And if you want to check out the entire set of photos from the workshop, click here.


Developing an Automata Workshop

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For the past couple of months we've been experimenting with cardboard automata in the tinkering studio as our weekday workshop activity. It's been a bit of a challenge to have this activity running consistently in the workshop for several reasons. This activity takes a long period of time (from 1-2 hours), uses tools like glue guns and exacto knives, and can be more of a step by step activity. We've tried cardboard automata in workshop settings but as with other activities, experimenting with the activity for an extended time on the floor has expanded the possibilities of the activity. We've been learning so much from visitors who have been creating amazing and unique challenges for themselves.

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As well, we've been creating small, but meaningful changes in the environment and activity design to help support participants. Many deserve their own posts but here are a couple of my favorites experiments so far:

One new thing that we've tried is creating a table of already made examples for people to test out before they try the activity. Some are very simple and others are quite complex. Though we started with all pre-made examples, over time the example table has become about half automata made by us and half visitor creations that they couldn't take with them. At first we were worried that the fragile automata wouldn't survive on the museum floor, but we've been impressed that visitors have been gentle with the creations while examining and testing them. Having something for people to do as well as books and resources out has helped to mitigate some of the potential problems with having a age limit on the workshop space and a maximum number of people who can come

Another small technological advancement that we've came up with early in the summer was using paper straws instead of clear plastic ones to hold the cam follower in place. The plastic parts proved to be an especially difficult challenge to hot glue in place because thin plastic straw can quickly warp and melt with the heat.

It's amazing how long we did automata in workshops without realizing this easy hack! We've found that when trying activities everyday on the floor we are able to make quicker advancements with activity design. Little advancements make a big difference in moving the frustrating elements of the activity away from materials that don't work well to the interesting challenges that people create for themselves. Thus, a big part of the R&D process for us is figuring out ways that people can be focuses on their own problems and not get stuck on a not-quite-right material.

As we continue to reflect on our experiences faciliating cardboard automata on the floor of the museum this summer, expect more in-depth posts about specific elements of the activity and our process of developing the workshop.