January 15th, 2008
Edward Ihnatowicz was a Cybernetic Sculptor active in the UK in the late 1960′s and early 1970′s. His ground-breaking sculptures explored the interaction between his robotic works and the audience, and reached their height with The Senster, a large (15 feet long), hydraulic robot commissioned by the electronics giant, Philips, in Eindhoven in 1970. The sculpture used sound and movement sensors to react to the behaviour of the visitors. It was one of the first computer controlled interactive robotic works of art.
Alex Zivanovic, a Visiting Scholar at the Lansdown Centre for Electronic Arts, has been researching the work of Edward Ihnatowicz and building an excellent archive which is available online. I am so pleased that Alex is taking the time to research thoroughly how Ihnatowicz not just built the Senster but developed its behaviours. It was a truely ground breaking piece of work that is still a source of inspiration for artists and roboticists today.
Ihnatowicz’s interest in the kinetics stemmed from his conviction that the behaviour of something tells us far more about it than its appearance. This led him to build the Senster, one of the most influential kinetic sculptures ever made. It consisted of a fifteen-foot-long steel frame articulated in six different places, with the joints all powered by hydraulics. On the Senster’s ‘head’ were an array of microphones and a Doppler radar system.
The Honeywell mini-computer controlling the mechanism was programmed to make it react to three things: moderate and low sounds, loud sounds, and fast motion. Moderate sounds the head would move towards, loud sounds it would pull back from, and fast motion it would track. The result was an uncanny resemblance to a living thing, and the crowds at the Evoluon in Eindhoven, Holland, where it was on show reacted with enormous excitement. Children would shout and wave at it, call it names, and even throw things. Ihnatowicz explains that its movements seemed to stem from situations that people recognized.
In the quiet of the early morning the machine would be found with its head down, listening to the faint noise of its own hydraulic pumps. Then if a girl walked by the head would follow her, looking at her legs. Ihnatowicz described his own first stomach-turning experience of the machine when he had just got it working: he unconsciously cleared his throat, and the head came right up to him as if to ask, ‘Are you all right?’ He also noticed a curious aspect of the effect the Senster had on people. When he was testing it he gave it various random patterns of motion to go through.
Children who saw it operating in this mode found it very frightening, but no one was ever frightened when it was working in the museum with its proper software, responding to sounds and movement. Although the Senster was dismantled some years ago, many people who saw it still remember vividly what a strong impression it made on them. Edward Ihnatowicz died in 1988. Alex Zivanovic currently continues to build on the archive as well as running science and technology education events and his own firm AZ Consultants, supporting the development of mechatronics projects for medical and industrial applications.