16556971778_04b69e9a2e_o Casa Jasmina: Robochop #0000 by Bruce Sterling

“Robochop” is part of a series of related explorations by Kram-Weisshaar, which include their project “Breeding Tables,” which used generative software to “breed” some metal office furniture, and “Outrace,” which connected industrial robots to Web-surfers for an outdoor public event in London.

So Kram-Weisshaar have some definite ideas as design enthusiasts specializing in robots.   Let me try to explain more precisely what Kram Weisshaar was making in Hannover.   Their basic means of production is a “Kuka KR 210 R2700 Quantec PRIME” industrial robot.   The R2700 model is one among a large series of Kuka’s Quantec industrial robot products.  The Kuka R2700 weighs 1,111 kilograms and can rapidly whip its single, big, orange arm inside a 2.7 meter reach.   This robot arm has three elbows and can lift 210 kilograms.  The R2700 could easily  break your skull, so it operates behind a safety cage.

Kram-Weisshaar did two remarkable things with this modern German industrial robot.  First, they invented a  gripper-tool that allowed it to quickly manipulate thousands of big styrofoam cubes.  And, they also wrote a web interface for it that opened it to the public.

Cutting up styrofoam with a hot wire is pretty  dramatic, because it’s fast and smokey, but technically, it’s not hard for a robot to do that  nowadays. Creating a simple,  useful web interface for an industrial robot, so that random web-surfers who never used a robot before can do something useful with a robot — that was plenty hard to do.   That aspect of the “Robochop” project was its most remarkable feat. This is also why “Robochop #0000″ can be properly described as an “Internet-of-Things” manufactured product.

To do Kram-Weisshaar justice, I’d spend the rest of this essay talking about their web interaction design.  Their web interface is  good.  It’s taken the complex tool-path realities of a robot with six degrees of freedom, and turned that onto a convenient web-game that any bright ten-year-old could manage.   I spent an afternoon on that website designing “Robochop #0000.” I enjoyed that work, and so did thousands of other people.  With simple  graphic web-tools — point-and-click straight lines, mouse-drawn curves, an UNDO button and an execute button — thousands of different people cut up thousands of pieces of foam furniture, using industrial robots that followed their plans.  Then, this airy, yet rather bulky cube-shaped furniture was shipped to these people in dozens of countries all over the world.  That was the Robochop project, which is now completed.

So Kram-Weisshaar accomplished their Robochop mission.  The public loved their dramatic trade-show robots, and the effort got a lot of nice press: BBC, Al Jazeera, Engadget,  and even Chinese national television coverage.    Kram Weisshaar have proved that something technically difficult is possible on the web now, and their robot demonstration project was a popular hit.  Robochop not exactly a “Maker” project, but it was about popular making. Robochop is not an Arduino project, either, though they did use an Arduino to control some of their publicity cameras. Robochop was a conference publicity stunt to raise public awareness about high-tech manufacturing. And it worked, so, good for them.

However, now we’ve got this actual robot-carved object that exists in a house.  Now what happens? We own and use “Robochop #0000.”   How can we live with it?

Let’s be frank here.  As a CeBIT conference souvenir, “Robochop #0000″ is world-class.  However, as a working, everyday piece of domestic furniture, there are good things about it, and some not-so-good things about it.

The best thing is, it looks pretty.  Those Kuka robots move with an accuracy of .06 millimeters.  That hot wire can really cut foam: the cuts look smooth, sleek and inhumanly precise.  When you see “Robochop #0000,” you see a series of precise curves nicely cut in a smooth, uniform material.  It looks impressive and sculptural.

Although it’s unusual, it’s also subtle.  I walked two kilometers through the streets of downtown Torino, from San Salvario to FabLab Torino, openly carrying “Robochop #0000″ in my arms.  I passed by hundreds of pedestrians, locals, tourists, the old, the young. Nobody looked at me twice.  The light yellow cube  looks like a harmless shipping box,  or maybe a big postal package. Not one person was surprised or upset by it.

It’s also easy to explain to people.  It’s lightweight, so anyone, young or old, can pick it up and look at it from any angle.   People feel confident in handling “Robochop #0000.” It’s all made of one single material, so there’s nothing there to pinch or scrape, and no moving parts to break.   An audience can even pass it from hand to hand, and everyone can participate with it.  It’s fun and educational.

However: I wouldn’t boast about my own design for “Robochop #0000.”   After some brief thought, I designed Robochop #0000 with some narrow cuts and some large interior spaces, so that it could behave like a storage unit or maybe a magazine rack.  But my design was hasty work by an amateur. The curves were drawn badly, on a web interface, with an everyday Apple laptop touch-pad.  A real designer would have done a much better job designing a Robochop object — but why? How much effort does anybody want to put into carving a piece of styrofoam?   It’s not like designing mass-produced furniture, with thousand of copies. There’s only one copy, so why make a big fuss designing it?

Robochop #0000 swiftly arrived in Torino from Germany, in cardboard and taped bubble pack wrapping, in a pristine condition.  Jasmina and I then commenced to live with this styrofoam cube.   We moved it next to a wall plug. We tried using it as a CD storage rack and a platform for re-charging mobile phones.

Robochop #0000 was adequate at this task, like other kinds of minimalist magazine racks.  But it wasn’t much good as a storage unit.  It is very lightweight, and tends to skid around on the floor.  Also, its modest height of 40 centimeters is inconvenient for adults; everything’s down near the floor.

As a table, Robochop 0000 has the disadvantage of a large, round depression in the top, where the robot’s arm handled the styrofoam.  This round hole is okay for holding a large coffee cup, but how often does one want to put a glass or cup forty centimeters from the floor?  If you accidentally kick or knock the  foam table, the liquid will splash, so Robochop already has some wine stains on it.

We also tried using it as a footstool. That left dents from shoes on its surface.

Styrofoam is a modest material, meant for prototypes.  We’ve been kind to “Robochop #0000,” but styrofoam by its nature will scuff, dent, and turn dirty, much like cardboard furniture does.  The price was right (we got it for free, because we are big fans of Reed Kram and Clemens Weisshaar), but Robochop #0000 is doomed to get tattered, battered and dirty.  Styrofoam is hard to clean and impossible to repair. So Robochop #0000 will have a short life.

We might reinforce the styrofoam cube to make “Robochop #0000″ last longer as furniture.  We could sheathe it in plywood, or maybe dip it into a hard plastic.   But then “Robochop #0000″ wouldn’t be the demonstration project from a robot any more. Instead, it would just be a styrofoam cube inside a hard shell.  It’s hard to imagine a way to preserve this object without also spoiling its message.

Then comes the problem of telling this product’s complicated story.  This is a typical problem with “Internet of Things” objects: if they’re not visibly connected with the Internet in some way, them they go dead and they look odd.   If you saw “Robochop #0000″ by itself you would never guess that “Robochop #0000″ is a clever demonstration of popular access to robots via web design.    So the presence of the “Internet” somehow has to be manifested on the “thing.”  In Casa Jasmina, we’ll need to invent some consistent way to do this.  For “Robochop #0000″ I think the answer might be a QR code attached to it with velcro.  But I can already tell that this IoT labeling problem will be one of Casa Jasmina’s major challenges.

So, that’s the story of our styrofoam footstool.  Will home-designed styrofoam objects,  individually cut by robots, ever be practical for any real use in actual homes?  Maybe.  Having lived with a styrofoam cube, I can now imagine at least a few practical situations where they might make sense  — if they were cheap enough.

They might make excellent indoor cat shelters — say, a cat playhouse and cat scratching post.  Cats like snug boxes, and styrofoam would keep cats warm. They might also be good toy-boxes for a small child.  If several boxes were mounted together high along the wall, above the everyday dirt and wear, they might make an interesting shelving system.  And they might be ideal for just one semester in some raucous student dormitory, because students enjoy destroying everything anyway. I can also imagine them seeing some use in an Ibiza rave bar, the kind of raucous scene where foam gets squirted all over the dancers and everybody falls over drunk.

As a final note, since Robochop #0000 looks like a magazine rack — (sort of) — Robochop #0000 is inspiring me to write some ambivalent, Internet-of-Things small-press magazine that would properly fit inside Robochop #0000.  The Internet has always had plenty of “magazines,” but “Internet of Things” magazines have been pretty rare or even nonexistent to date.   Maybe it’s time for us to get a chair, put our feet up on Robochop #0000, and read one of those publications. If we write many more essays like this, maybe we can print them all out, and move them right into the house.

Bruce Sterling


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