Community Invited to View Mechanical Invention Through Computation

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Shape-shifting objects, expandable machinery and transformable robots will all be on display this spring during an exhibit of student projects from the new MIT course Mechanical Invention through Computation. Taught by CSAIL Director Daniela Rus, Professor Erik Demaine, and Visiting Artist Chuck Hoberman, the course considers the creation of mechanisms with a focus on the inventive process, providing students with an opportunity to bring their wildest inventions to life using computation.
The exhibit showcases student creations of kinetic prototypes and designs for objects ranging from transformable tables to clothes. Drawing upon topics covered in the course - including kinematic analysis and synthesis, self-actuated form-creation through origami and other methods of designing transformable structures that change size and shape – students spent the semester developing new software applications that would allow them to invent new or redesign objects using advanced computational skills.
“The course allows students to play around with crazy ideas for new mechanisms that can morph into different shapes and sizes,” said Rus. The course is part of Rus’ National Science Foundation-funded research project to reinvent how robots are designed and produced. Through this research effort, CSAIL researchers hope to develop a desktop technology that would make it possible for the average person to design, customize and print a specialized robot in a matter of hours.
Professor and CSAIL Principal Investigator Erik Demaine and his father, CSAIL Visiting Scientist Martin Demaine, are adding their expertise with computational origami to help develop new methods for developing robots that can be assembled using origami techniques. Hoberman, the founder of Hoberman Associates and a visiting scholar at Harvard University, is known for his transformable structures and his work demonstrating how objects can be foldable, retractable, or shape shifting.
Students in Mechanical Invention through Computation developed a wide range of new transformable mechanisms during the semester. One group set out with the goal of creating software that would allow them to create a multitude of expanding shapes, including everything from an expandable polyhedron to an expanding bunny. Drawing on methods pioneered by Hoberman, as well as advanced computer science algorithms, students were able to develop a new algorithm that, as the students explained, makes it possible that “crazy surfaces can now be used to make crazy expanding mechanisms,” such as an expandable bunny.
Another group focused on making a portable CNC router, a heavy and bulky computer-controlled machine used for shaping objects, so that is could moved around to different locations, stored compactly and made easily accessible for users. The team developed technology to create an expandable router that folds up like an accordion for easy storage and expands for use in cutting a wide variety of objects. The group was able to maintain the machine’s cutting force of between 30 and 50 pounds while still making it portable.
An expandable robot with two wheels, nicknamed the Expandabot, was another invention created in the Mechanical Invention through Computation course. The Expandabot is a transformable robot that travels on two wheels, which the team outfitted with the capability to expand and contract so that the machine could adapt to changing terrains and maneuver different environments.
The Mechanical Invention through Computation course exhibit will run from Tuesday, May 21 through Thursday, June 20 in 32-338 in the MIT Ray and Maria Stata Center. All are invited to attend an opening reception for the exhibit on Monday, May 20 at 5 p.m. The reception is free and refreshments will be served.
The exhibition is sponsored by the MIT Center for Art, Science & Technology (CAST).

For more information on Mechanical Invention through Computation, please visit:

-Abby Abazorius, CSAIL
-Photos by Jason Dorfman, CSAIL photographer