Automata: Telling Stories With Machines Fall 2014

Instructor: Nick Yulman
Class:  Monday 6:30 – 9:25 pm
Office Hours by appointment email to schedule

Sep 8th • 15th • 22nd • 29th
Oct 6th • 20th • 27th
Nov 3rd • 10th • 24th
Dec 1st • 8th

Course Description:

Since antiquity, people have been fascinated with automatically controlling physical movement, light and sound to imbue inanimate objects with lifelike qualities. This course will explore the concept of automation, its history in the arts and industry and cover techniques for building and controlling automated devices.

We will look at historical and literary examples of automata, discuss their technical execution and cultural context, and explore their roles as precursors to sound recording, cinema and interactive media. Technical topics will include designing mechanisms for automating movement, working with various types of motors, solenoids and relays, programming automated routines using microcontrollers and software, and interfacing with popular automation protocols like MIDI and DMX. Beyond technology, we will try to understand what qualities give autonomous machines a sense of personality and invite users to project narratives onto them.

Course Objectives:

  • Develop a toolkit of technical approaches for programming automation and working with actuators.
  • Work with automated physical motion and other media that goes beyond screen-based images and recorded sound.
  • Study and draw inspiration from historical Automata and mechanical devices.
  • Examine how modern and contemporary artists and musicians have used automation in their work.
  • Experiment with a variety of materials and automation platforms to uncover new possibilities for what can be automated for artistic purposes.
  • Use automation technology in the service of crafting narratives, expressing personality and engaging an audience.

Class Participation 10%
Exercises 30%
Midterm 30%
Final 30%

Presentation Assignment (optional):  Pick a historical automata or an artist who works with automation that you find interesting and inspiring and create a brief (5-10 minutes) presentation for the class.  In addition to showing and describing the work,  discuss what you find intriguing about it.  Also, try to learn about its technical execution and provide a summary or how it works (i.e. what encoding, sequencing & actuation techniques does it use).

Required Reading: Gaby Woods Edison’s Eve: A Magical History of the Quest for Mechanical Life
We’ll be discussing the book in class  on 11.24 but I recommend getting it now and  reading it throughout the semester.

Week 1 Starting the Machine

Assignment for next week:
Exercise 1: 
Concept Development:
Develop an idea for a project that involves Automata
Create 2 quick studies that explore some facet of the design, experience or concept.
You can use any materials or methods you’d like including software, models, mechanism mockup, etc.
Make at least 1 of your studies physical (i.e. not just software).

Week 2 Actuation  1: Motors

Assignment for next week:
Exercise 3:  Motors
Make something with motors that plays with one or more of the following concepts:

  • Pacing
  • Position in relation to time
  • Repetition and variation

Week 3  Actuation  2: Solenoids

  • Present Motor Exercises
  • Solenoids, valves, linear actuators, electro magnets and and relays
  • Assignment for next week:

Exercise 4:  Solenoids
Make something that uses solenoids, linear actuators or relays

Week 4: Designing mechanisms

Assignment for next week:
Exercise 5:
  use a digital fabrication technique to make a basic mechanism.
It should include at least two pieces that interface with each other.

Week 5: Programing Timing and motion sequences

Optional Robotic Arm Programming assignment:

Program a short (1-3 minute) automated routine for the robotic arm.
Feel free to use any objects or other media to create a story or scenario. 

Midterm Assignment: Character Sketch:
Build on one or more of the exercises you’ve done to create a more fully realized piece that uses automation to imbue a machine or an object with a sense of personality, voice or intention.  The piece can be dynamic and interactive or through composed.Timeline
Concept Presentation
Technical Presentation
Final presentation , crit and discussion

For Concept Presentation:

  • An illustration or rendering of your idea (short video is ok too)
  • 1 Paragraph each:
    • Concept (description of your idea)
    • Composition (what will it do?)
    • Context (what makes it interesting?)
  • Technical plan:
    • BOM (bill of materials) – what do you need to make this?
    • Technical drawings (sketches, dimensioned drawing, design details, etc)
    • Signal chain (what energy, programming and actuation elements are you using and how do they interface with each other?)

Here’s an example of the conceptual document using Tim Hawkinson’s Emoter as a subject

10.13: Fall Break, No Class

Week 6

  • Midterm Concept  & Technical Presentation
  • Midterm workshopping and user testing
  • Working with automation protocols

Week 7:

  • Midterm workshopping and user testing
  • MIDI in class exercise


Week 8: Midterm Due

  • Midterm presentations, critique and discussion

For Next Week:
Jessica Riskin:  Eighteenth Century Wetware
Rose Eveleth:  Robots: Is the Uncanny Valley Real?

Sigmund Freud:  The Uncanny  (especially part II)

Week 9

  • Uncanny Automata — Discuss readings
  • Unusual Materials for Automation

Final Project Assignment: Automated Composition (due 12.1):
Working with a specific story or scenario as a starting place, develop a piece that uses automation to convey narrative, creating a dynamic conceptual relationship between the content and form.

For Next Week: create a storyboard with at least 3 panels, illustrating the story, composition or sequence you are creating.

Week 10

Reading Assignment: Gaby Woods Edison’s Eve: A Magical History of the Quest for Mechanical Life

Week 11:  Historical Automata


  • Discuss Woods Reading and Morris Museum Trip
  • Construction techniques – making your projects more stable
    Slides from Class
  • Building your own Arduino
  • Intro to Eagle and PCB manufacturing
  • Final Project user testing and workshopping

Week 12: Final Projects Due

  • Presentation of Final Projects