The 5 Year Memento

Posted in robotics on March 20th, 2011 by Samuel Kenyon

5 years

This is a snowglobe featuring a sculpture of the robot Genghis.


Mel Hunter’s Lonely Robot

Posted in culture on February 27th, 2011 by Samuel Kenyon

During my adventures through the mysterious evo-devo circus freakshow known as childhood, I found myself encountering a lot of science fiction stories and art from 1950s-1970s. Old issues of The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction that I recovered from the dump were just as interesting to my larval mind as pornography.

The one cover that I remember the most was Mel Hunter‘s depiction of a retro-futuristic vacuum tube powered robot, sitting alone in a post-apocalyptic world, listening to a vinyl record.  This was one of several covers by Hunter featuring the lonely robot.

May 1960 issue of F&SF

May 1960 issue of F&SF

Recently, I saw the painting in real life (unless it was a reproduction?) at Boskone, a science fiction literature convention in Boston.

Photo of Mel Hunter painting at Boskone

Photo of Mel Hunter painting at Boskone 48

Some people might assume that the lonely robot had something to do with the apocalypse. However, I interpret it to show the sad fate of a robot more rugged than biological life.

The image reminds me of Ray Bradbury’s short story, “There Will Come Soft Rains.” In that story, a home automation system continues working day after day despite that all the humans are gone, like an artificial mega-Jeeves except without the kind of common sense that would make it realize its owners were dead. One day the house is destroyed by a fire.

Among the ruins, one wall stood alone. Within the wall, a last voice said, over and over again and again, even as the sun rose to shine upon the heaped rubble and steam:

“Today is August 5, 2026, today is August 5, 2026, today is…”

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Music and Machines: Highlights from the MIT Media Lab

Posted in culture, robotics on February 15th, 2011 by Samuel Kenyon

I recently attended “Music | Machines: 50 Years of Music and Technology @ MIT,” part of MIT’s ongoing Festival of Art + Science + Technology (FAST).

One of the most interesting demonstrations was the iPhone Guitar by Rob Morris of the Media Lab. Basically, he makes use of the iPhone’s accelerometer as an input for special effects.

iPhone Guitar by Rob Morris

The iPhone is attached to the guitar, so that certain gestural movements of the guitar in space–especially those that happen during an emotional performance–are detected and used to modulate the sound. The touch screen of the iPhone also comes in handy as an accessible on-guitar interface for selecting effects and inputting other variables.

The Muse

The Muse

Digital music is no longer a new phenomena; in fact, it’s downright ancient when you consider that one of the first digital music contraptions was made in 1972. The Triadex Muse is an algorithmic music generator using digital logic, and was designed by Edward Fredkin and Marvin Minsky at MIT Lincoln Laboratory.

Music, Mind and Meaning

Marvin Minsky at MIT Media Lab, Feb 5, 2011

Speaking of Minsky, he discussed “Music, Mind and Meaning” with Teresa Marrin, Mary Farbood and Mike Hawley. Amongst the anecdotes Minsky mentioned an old concept of goals.

One of the ways human minds might achieve goals is to reduce the difference between what it has and what it wants. Music may utilize some of the same mental components–most music chops time in equal intervals and with equal substructures. These chopped experience windows can be compared, possibly in the same way that you can compare what you have with what you want.

Excerpts from the Concert

Computer based production is normal nowadays. So how would a computer and electronics oriented concert be special? Well, Todd Machover of the Media Lab was able to do that by assembling musicians that make some very unusual sounds and abnormal compositions. They all involve computers and/or electronics, but in innovative ways…and through live performances.

The concert began with a 1976 composition by Barry Vercoe called Synapse for Viola and Computer, an early work from MIT’s Experimental Music Studio. As a restaging of the 1970s performance, the digital accompaniment is inflexible, so it was up to the human soloist, Marcus Thompson, to maintain sync and “express himself within the confines.”

Vercoe – Synapse

Synapse was followed by Synaptogenesis, in which Richard Boulanger performs by triggering sound clips and transformations using a Nintendo WiiMote and a Novation Launchpad.

Boulanger – Synaptogenesis

Programmable drums machines have been around since 1972, but what is rare is to see the machine actuate physical percussion hardware. One such robotic instrument is the Heliphon, originally made by Leila Hasan and Giles Hall, and later redesigned by Bill Tremblay and Andy Cavatorta.

Todd Reynolds, Heliphon the robot, and Evan Zipioryn performing at the MIT Media Lab

The sound from this double helix metallophone is produced via solenoids hammering the metal keys. It also has lights hooked in to give a visual indication of which keys are active.

Heliphon and humans Todd Reynolds (violin) and Evan Ziporyn (clarinet) performed Ziporyn’s Belle Labs – Parts 1 & 3.

Ziporyn, Reynolds, Heliphon – Belle Labs Parts 1 and 3

Heliphon is one of various robotic instruments commissioned by Ensemble Robot, a nonprofit corporation based in Boston, MA. Ensemble Robot also made WhirlyBot, which looks like a turnstile but sounds like a chorus of human-like voices, and Bot(i)Cello, which appears to be a cross between a construction tool and a stringed instrument.

The Future of the Underground

If you’re interested in hearing more electronic music, there is always new stuff (or remixes of old stuff) being made, far below the radar of the mainstream.  You can hear some of it on the web, but being at a live performance or DJ set is a different experience, especially when the DJ modifies the music on the fly.  There are some new tools to enable this, for example, here is DJ/producer Encati demonstrating a Kinect wobble controller for dubstep mutations:

What I would like to see more of are environmental actuations triggered by music, beyond just flashing lights. We have autogenerated visualizers, and we can use MIDI to control lights (and fire cannons), but what about having a room really transform automatically based on the music? I’m taking about dynamic 2D and 3D displays everywhere, autonomous mobile furniture, materials changing shape and color, and so on.

Image credits:

4. MIT
Others by the author.

Cross-posted with H+ Magazine.

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A Visit to the Museum of Sex

Posted in culture, interfaces, robotics on February 1st, 2011 by Samuel Kenyon

Recently I visited the Museum of Sex in New York City.

Museum of Sex

Museum of Sex

I took a few photos, mostly of robotics and/or cyborg related exhibits.  There was also a comics exhibit (I didn’t bother taking any photos) which was somewhat interesting, such as Superman co-creator Joe Shuster’s racy drawings, including some copies of Nights of Horror.

The “Sex Lives of Animals” exhibit was quite interesting also, including a large model of a dolphin inserting its penis in another dolphin’s blowhole (by artist Rune Olsen).

dolphin sex sculpture

dolphin sex sculpture

Anyway, artist Michael Sullivan makes these weird models of robots, a tie-in to his stop motion film The Sex Life of Robots:

Iron Hole

Iron Hole?

Iron Hole

Deeper into the Iron Hole

There was a separate area for “Robots and Figurines” but it was disappointingly sparse.

Robots & Figurines

Robots & Figurines.

Since you can see it in the reflection, I might as well throw this one in:

Torpedo Tit Catsuit

Torpedo Tit Catsuit

A concept of wearable computing that is somewhat different than what I’ve seen before:


I'm not sure what's going on here.


side view

The next photo shows examples of Realdolls.  And if you think this is getting weird, visit their website, where you will learn that elf ears can be added to a female doll for an extra $150.


Realdolls (much better than Fakedolls)

One of the early uses of the electric motor was for female stimulation.  Sears Roebuck used to sell vibrators.

Old fashioned vibrator.

Old fashioned vibrator

And that concludes this brief survey of the Museum of Sex.  I wouldn’t make a special trip for it, but if you happen to be in NYC, I recommend checking it out.

Image credits:  All photos taken by the author Samuel H. Kenyon, except for dolphins from Rune Olsen.

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