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My Blind Date with a Robot : a story about the collaborative process

I was invited to talk about the collaborative process at an art-science event called Collide and Conquer, to give a behind the scenes look at the project Newreal Pathways: BrainBot CC-DD 1.50. The project was part of the show SPARK!  – an art exhibit aimed at examining the relationship between art and science.

While reflecting on the process I noticed how this particular collaborative experience had many parallels with a blind date.  So here’s my story of how I got involved with a Robot.

Jiggle Bot with bow tie

Jiggle Bot with bow tie

I know collaborations come in all forms and expressions, but it seems like most evolve between friends, colleagues, or people who know each other and have shared perspectives and ideas that spark a potential project – whether they work in the same discipline or not.

But lately I wasn’t having much luck…then I met Curiosity Collider and Char Hoyt…and Char mentioned organizing collaborations with a scientists.

Whisk (Suggestions) - acrylic and watercolour on panel - 12 x 16 inches

Whisk (Suggestions) – acrylic and watercolour on panel – 12 x 16 inches

Since my interests lie primarily in human experience, health, psychology, physiology, biology, neuroscience, quantum physics…

…and my paintings are abstract, subtly figurative, organic, visceral, a blending of foreground and background…

I imagined most likely being matched with a biologist, botanist, neuroscientist, cardiologist, cartographer, or something along those lines…

But Char had something brewing already…

Chart Hoyt by her painting 'Web' (photo: Theresa Liao)

Chart Hoyt by her painting ‘Web’ (photo: Theresa Liao)

The next meeting with Char went something like this:

Char: I saw  your paintings and love the fine branch work and arteries. I want to set your paintings up with a robot

Me: who? what?

Char: a line following robot! Your lines are meant to intertwine!

This was not what I was expecting.

And this is when I realized I was getting set up on a blind date…or at least my paintings were.

But what did my paintings have in common with robots?

The Preparations…

Line Following Robot Tracks

Line Following Robot Tracks – Top Left: Micromouse online Japan 2012 practice  Top Right: Pololu Bot  Bottom:

So I did a little research and this is what I found, and I was very intrigued.
But I was still at a loss for finding a relationship between my organic, chance driven paintings, and this very calculated, programmed and automated performance machine.
But Char was so excited and convinced there was great potential here, I couldn’t help but think, ‘let’s go for it!’
She hadn’t found Dan yet, but it didn’t stop us from brainstorming the details of the date and envisioning the potential sparks.  After all, the exhibition was coming quickly, and we couldn’t waste any time.
Luckily, Char knew a fair amount about these bots and as I learned from her, I started making connections with my work and my recent interest in how brains work. This is when I decided the track would be a brain.

From there, I came up with a few sketches of possible tracks.

Brain Sketch 2a Brain Sketch from photo Brain Sketch double track

Brain Sketch profile   15 NEWREAL PATHWAYS SKET002   15 NEWREAL PATHWAYS SKET001

I still wasn’t sure what the bot would be capable of doing, and whether its abilities could be translated into a recognizable image.  All the tracks I had seen were not representative of anything, followed simple geometric patterns, and for the most part were a single path. I envisioned more a choose your own adventure kind of track.

This is the sketch that became the final design:

Brain Sketch

The Setup

Introducing Daniel DeGagné and Jiggle Bot

Left: Daniel DeGagné (photo: Theresa Liao) Right: Jiggle Bot the line following robot (photo: Dzee Louise)

Left: Daniel DeGagné (photo: Theresa Liao) Right: Jiggle Bot the line following robot (photo: Dzee Louise)

Char posted an ad to the robotics club, and from the description of the project, Daniel was interested enough to find out more. He didn’t have all the details but just enough to see. So very much like myself, he was curious enough to go forward with an open mind.

The First Date

Upon our first meeting with Dan, along came Jiggle Bot. And there were definitely sparks!

15 IP DzeeLouise - 151002 - NEWREAL PATHWAYS - ROBOT TEST CoLab - at CHAR STUDIO - 0045 Crop with Sparks

20 Questions

The Profile

I wanted to get to know Jiggle Bot so Dan gave me a quick profile:

Favourite colour: black and red, will follow these colours anywhere. Not partial to blue

Physical ability: proficient with straight lines, skilled with large curves, cannot turn on a dime

Preferences: curves of at least 10cm diameter, lines min width 2cm

Strengths: determined and persistent. Will never givve up. (unless batteries run out)


Getting to know each other

Through many great conversations, the line drawing and the bot started to get to know each other to see what they could create together…

Left: Colab with Dan and Dzee hands on thinking (photo: Char Hoyt) Right: CoLab with Dan, Dzee and Char (photo: Theresa Liao)

Left: Colab with Dan and Dzee hands on thinking (photo: Char Hoyt) Right: CoLab with Dan, Dzee and Char (photo: Theresa Liao)

The beginning of the collaboration was an exchange of visual concept and technical possibilities.  I showed Dan a few sketches of the brain track I designed and he gave me feedback on what the bot would be capable of doing and what some roadblocks might be.  Essentially, he explained how the bot would behave in different situations.

NEWREAL PATHWAYS - COLAB 2 with Dzee, Char and Dan (photo: Theresa Liao)

NEWREAL PATHWAYS – CoLab with Dzee, Char and Dan (photo: Theresa Liao)

To get to know Jiggle Bot, I had a few questions :

Do you tend to follow known pathways, or are you inclined to explore?
(How much choice and chance could I insert into the track design?)

When you reach a dead end, how do  you react? Are you able to find your way out?
(How do I create a detailed drawing that would also be a continuous path, Will the bot be able to back track, or would it require a cul de sac or roundabout?)

15 IP DzeeLouise - 151002 - NEWREAL PATHWAYS - PAINTING TEST TRACK - iPHONE - 0005 with feet
How well do you move in tight spaces?
(How small can I create the curves?)

When faced with multiple options, how do you make a choice and  which path will you most likely choose?
(How do I incorporate the element of chance into the track?)

Then we both worked on ourselves  …

15 IP DzeeLouise - 151002 - NEWREAL PATHWAYS - PAINTING TEST TRACK - iPHONE - 0006 - WEB

Painting the test track

Getting to know each other continued this way with doing tests runs, and with me going back to the drawing board to make adjustments to the track , and Dan going back to the motherboard (so to speak) to make adjustments to the bot.

Although working out the technical aspects was the starting point for the collaboration, the challenges that arose were actually the meat of the project, what it was all about and what sparked our conversations about brains, intelligence, thought patterns and difficulties, OCD, memory loss, TBI etc…

The parallels between the tasks we gave the bot and how information travels in the brain began to surface.

Working out our differences

Growing stronger together

Sweet-conversation-phase over, we moved into the tough stuff…but working out your differences makes you grow stronger right?

Some of the difficulties we faced were:


CoLab Projection Test at VHS

Jiggle Bot getting stuck in a particular area of the track (being momentarily stuck worked conceptually, but being stuck indefinitely presented some problems)

How to insert the element of chance and some complexity to the visuals when the bot worked best with a simple clear cut path.

Unsure whether the bot would be able to move easily over a textured terrain (if the track was going to be traced over the textured painting)

How to work around the bot not being able to distinguish between black and red, (as the painting would likely have a lot of red, and this would confuse the bot)

We resolved two of these problems when we realized it would be possible to project images of the paintings onto the track. Two problems vanished spontaneously! Although it created some other technical difficulties for Char and Nikolai at VIVO to solve! It wasn’t as simple as mounting it to point to the floor. In the photos above, we were simply testing how the bot would react to projections and created a temporary, makeshift, (almost) vertical projector that we ran only for a minute or so at a time to avoid overheating the bulb.

Here is Jiggle Bot getting stuck in an infinity loop.

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There were a number of things that were about the differences between the line drawing’s preferences, and the bot’s preferences, and these differences would shape the final creation.

The differences were what we started getting excited about and became an integral part of the piece.

The juxtaposition of the organic with the mechanical, the spontaneous and the programmed, the ambiguous and the clear cut.

15 IP DzeeLouise - 151112 - NEWREAL PATHWAYS - Test VIVO - IMG_2542 small copy  15 IP DzeeLouise - 151112 - NEWREAL PATHWAYS - Test VIVO - IMG_2552 small copy  Technical Rehearsal VIVO - Track through Ladder

We were now coming to the end, doing the final tests before the exhibit. And everything was coming together

Planning a future together

You know it’s serious when …

What emerged during our CoLabs were ideas too elaborate to realize by the upcoming show. We got so inspired that the ideas continued to grow and grow. We inevitably starting talking about ‘the next one’ and planning future possible projects. This was a clear sign of success.  For now, this is a (sped up) video of the first CoLab success.

What started as an exchange between imagery and technical specifications, evolved into an exchange of ideas and perspectives and sparked shared visions of future possibilities.

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