Dancing Machines

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The quad-rotor flying robots developed in CSAIL Principal Investigator Daniela Rus’ lab were initially intended to fly in small groups without human aid, gathering information on whales for marine biologists, snapping surveillance images across large tracts of land and providing assistance with various telecommunication applications. This summer, the quad-rotors, decked out in dazzling strings of lights, took to the stage at the Joyce Theater in New York City on an entirely different sort of mission. Along with the modern dance company Pilobolus, the quad-rotors told the tale of an unusual friendship between robots and humans in a dance set to a Schubert piano trio.

 
In the piece, called Seraph, one of the quad-rotors from Rus’ Distributed Robotics Lab at CSAIL, befriends a human. What follows is a touching tale and exploration of the differences and similarities between humans and machines.
 
The collaboration was born in the fall of 2010, when Rus, a professor in MIT’s Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science, was approached by members of Pilobolus about using some of her robots in a dance piece. Rus explained that she jumped at the opportunity to collaborate with a professional dance company.
 
“I think dance is a wonderful celebration of the human body,” said Rus. “I am delighted to be part of a project that shows that technology and dance can come together.”
 
Robby Barnett, an artistic director for Pilobolus, said that working with robots provided a platform for the company to explore not only motion through the speed, agility and stability of the quad-rotor, but also the psychology behind human relationships.
 
“The idea that these (quad-rotors) could be made to indicate intelligence was intriguing. There is sort of a sensual consideration of speed and position in theatrical situations,” said Barnett, adding that by examining the way that humans physically react to one another, for example how they approach or retreat from each other, much can be learned about a personal relationship.
 
“It occurred to us that robots flown in proximity to humans explore this even more viscerally,” said Barnett.
 
The collaborative process between the dancers of Pilobolus and the researchers of the Distributed Robotics Lab at CSAIL were intense, with the modern dance troupe coming to CSAIL for a weekend last fall of exploration into how man and machine could dance together. Using the story of a budding friendship between a human child and a robot, the dancers spent their days learning to interact comfortably with the robots, and students from Rus’ group learning to control the robots in a manner in keeping with the agility and grace of a live dance performance.
 
After only a few days of rehearsals, the piece premiered in a trial run in Boston last winter. From there, Seraph evolved in complexity and finesse, culminating in 15 performances this summer at the Joyce Theater in New York City.
 
One of Rus’ main concerns for the performance was ensuring the success of her group’s robots, which are designed primarily as research platforms, performing live on a professional stage.  Most of the group’s robots, while adept at gardening, reconfiguring to adapt to new situations and gathering information underwater, are not developed for commercial uses, let alone a New York City stage. The quad-rotors, however, turned out to be a perfect fit for Pilobolus, due to their speed, agility and graceful hovering capabilities.
 
To assist with visually showing an emotional connection and communication between the robots and humans, Rus proposed the idea of adding a set of programmable LED lights on the robots. The lights have also proved useful off the stage, as a means of visualizing activity in group robotics. 
 
“I was very interested in coming up with a robot system that would work aesthetically, especially with the Pilobolus dances, who do these amazing acrobatic superhuman maneuvers,” said Rus. “As it happens, our robot fliers can achieve some of the acrobatic maneuvers and display the grace required for artistic expression. I wanted to make sure our robots would look good on stage, they could communicate, and they would be able interact with dancers.”
 
The collaborative process between artists and scientists proved invigorating as well, according to Barnett, who explained that he was particularly impressed with the abilities of CSAIL graduate students William Selby and Daniel Soltero, who maneuvered the robots during performances from backstage.
 
“Part of our excitement was just the virtuosity of the flyers Will Selby and Danny Soltero. They were really incredibly agile and apt with these things, and they contributed not just to the flying, but also to the construction of the piece,” said Barnett. “They were amazing.”
 
Rus and her students are currently training members of Pilobolus to operate the quad-rotors so they can continue their performances and work with the flying robots. One of the best aspects of the performance for Rus and her group was the ability to teach the next generation about robotics, as during intermission for the New York performances Selby and Soltero offered live demos and question and answer sessions for attendees.
 
“I think outreach through art is very effective. We often visit classrooms, give lectures on robots, and are visited by school kids, but reaching audiences of thousands through a dance performance is even more powerful. Watching a beautiful robot dance that tells the story of friendship between humans and machines is transformative,” said Rus.

Abby Abazorius, CSAIL