Automata: Telling Stories With Machines Fall 2013

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

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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 (individual dates tbd throughout semester):  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 11.14 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: Programing Timing and motion sequences

Assignment for next week:
Exercise 2: Robotic Arm Programming:
(you can work alone or in groups of two)
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. 

Week 3  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 4  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 5: 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.
We’ll have a walk around demo session next week.

Midterm Assignment: Character Sketch (due 10.24.13):
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.

10.10.13: Concept Presentation (next week)
10.17.13: Technical Presentation
10.24.13: Final presentation , crit and discussion

For Concept Presentation:
1 PDF with:

  • 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?)

Here’s an example using Tim Hawkinson’s Emoter as a subject

Week 6

For Next Week:

Technical Plan Documentation:
– Signal Flow Chart (diagram of all components of your system and how they are connected);
– Dimensional Drawing of piece
– Working prototypes (if possible)

Week 7

  • Midterm Technical Presentation and workshopping

Week 8: Mid-term projects 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: The Ghost in the Machine

  • Uncanny Automata — Discuss readings
  • Unusual Materials

Final Project Assignment: Automated Narrative (due 12.12.13):
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.

11.14.13 & 11.21.13: Concept Presentation
12.5.13: Prototype Testing & Technical Workshopping
12.12.13: Final Presentation , crit and discussion

Week 10

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

Field Trip: Tour of the Guinness Collection  at the Morris Museum
Sunday 11.10.13

Week 11:  Historical Automata

  • Final Project Concept/Technical presentations – 1st half
  • Discuss Woods Reading and Morris Museum Trip

Week 12: Build it better

  • Final Project Concept/Technical presentations – 2nd half
  • Construction techniques – making your projects more stable
    Slides from Class
  • Building your own Arduino
  • Intro to Eagle and PCB manufacturing

11.28.13 – No Class: Happy Thanksgiving

Week 13

  • Guest Speaker
  • Final Project user testing and workshopping

Week 14: Final Projects Due

  • Presentation of Final Projects