Interbots Initiative: An Extensible Platform for Interactive Social Experiences With an Animatronic Character
A highly expressive robotic character, a robust behavior control system, and a host of content-authoring tools combine to generate interactive social experiences with an animatronic character.
Art and Science
At Carnegie Mellon's Entertainment Technology Center, artists and
technologists work together on projects that emphasize user experience.
The Interbots Initiative specifically focuses on creating complete,
interactive, believable experiences with animatronic characters. The most important factor in the success of these experiences is
personality. However, the fields of human-robot interaction and
entertainment robotics have thus far been largely limited to technical specialists: animators, writers, and other artists who design characters with interactive content. This project opens robotics to non-technologists through an
easily extensible platform for rapid development of social
interactions between humans and animatronic characters.
The extensible Interbots platform's greatest strength is that it
provides an interface between artistic vision and technological
implementation. Maya, a 3D modeling program, allows 3D artists to
directly export animations to the animatronic robot's hardware. The
platform leverages the power of Macromedia Flash and Macromedia Director,
two multimedia applications most artists are very familiar with.
Finally, a custom behavior-authoring tool allows people with no
programming experience to design personalities and behaviors for the
The primary goal was to create a platform capable of delivering a solid
and engaging experience. Users should forget that they're interacting
with an autonomous hunk of wires, metal, and plastic. They should see
the character in front of them, not the robot.
Other goals include maximizing extensibility of the platform and giving
non-technologists the ability to rapidly author content for interactive,
entertaining, animatronic experiences.
1. Developing a plug-in for Maya that allows animations created on a
virtual model of the animatronic robot to be exported directly to the
robot's hardware. The performance robot (Quasi) was designed with
expression of personality and emotion in mind. Development began with
character sketches and storyboards, which were expanded as a 3D model in
Maya. The model was exported to SolidWorks, in which Quasi's internal
structure was designed. The parts were then fabricated by hand out of
aluminum, steel, and plastic, and assembled.
2. Controlling costs by combining largely off-the-shelf hardware with
custom software. While Quasi is a custom piece created by students on
the team, most of his system consists of off-the-shelf components: LED
lighting by Colorkinetics for his eyes and antennae, servos by Hitec and
Multiplex, Sharp IR rangefinders, industrial power supplies from Jameco,
control hardware from Gilderfluke, raw materials and hardware from
McMaster Carr, a standard USB webcam for vision, and a number of
components from Radio Shack.
3. The Interbots platform. This modular collection of software allows
non-technologists to program interactive animatronic experiences,
utilizing familiar tools like Maya, Flash, and Director along with a
simple yet powerful GUI for programming states and behaviors. The system
is also highly extensible, so components can be mixed and matched with
minimal hassle to achieve desired results.
In the immediate future, the Interbots Initiative seeks to refine and
expand the set of tools for authoring content, allowing even deeper
interactions to be created. On the control side, the Interbots
Initiative is currently implementing a guided performance interface that
will allow for simple wireless control of the platform and a virtual
robot control system using the open-source 3D engine Panda3D, which will
allow developers to see the full effect of their content (complete with
animation, sound, and interactivity) before ever connecting it to the
As robotics move into everyday use, their sophistication continues to
advance. Systems for controlling these robots will need to adapt to
allow consumers the level of control that this new technology promises.
Just as Macromedia Flash opened up the world of web programming to
non-programmers, the right tools can do the same for entertainment
robotics. As the barrier between idea and implementation is lowered, the
possibilities only increase.
shane (at) techie.net
Carnegie Mellon University, Entertainment Technology Center
Georgia Institute of Technology