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One Project, Two Theses, and Many Ideas

One Project, Two Theses, and Many Ideas

As we jump into Term 3 during Covid-19, our brains are whirring with a dizzying amount of questions and ideas. Having now settled into this new pace of life, the next hurdle has been trying to figure out how to design and work collaboratively in this new context. How do we continue to feel like a team while working in isolation? What does collaborative work look like for everyone during this period of time? Naturally, given the context of our project, our team is very interested in these different dynamics and relationships.

Before we even begin thinking about designing again, we felt that it was important to answer some simple questions in order to filter through all the ideas in our brains. What was challenging was the different design goals our individual thesis presented. In order to continuously design cohesively, we looked at the classic questions of who, what, where, why, and how. This was to provide everyone in the team with a set of foundational practicalities to consider while designing and researching our individual thesis. The following answers may change over the course of the term:

Although these answers look straightforward, it took us awhile to discuss our different understanding and interests.

Tung: Just over a week ago, I had my first thesis meeting with my tutor, Kevin Walker. Since then, I’ve had some interesting conversations with peers and Kevin, as well as presenting during last Friday’s Journal Club. Through these discussions, I’ve seen my thesis questions evolve productively which has now afforded me the ability to think about the design project in relation to my thesis.

For awhile now, I have wrestled with the concept of ‘speculative design.’ Especially since the pandemic began, ‘speculative design’ has become a hot topic in the realm of design, school work, and symposiums. The more I read about it, the less sure I was that this was all there was to it. During Friday’s discussion, we talked about alternatives like Foucault’s concept of Heterotopia or Ian Cheng’s concept of Worlding. Suddenly it became clear to me that what I was interested in was not necessarily an end product but the process by which we, the designers, have to embark on to design with living materials. This realization also meant that I had a design direction for my contribution to the project.

By looking at Formafantasma’s most recent project ‘Cambio‘ I was able to find a working model. Cambio is a multidisciplinary investigative project that was commissioned and exhibited at the Serpentine Gallery earlier this year. It explores the “extraction, production, and distribution of wood products.” A thread that tied the whole project together was the deeper desire to explore an idea through multiple lenses. Emerging from this is a well thought out project that is perceptive and relevant to our times.

A shot of the local canal

Taking this as a model, I will conduct a series of dialogue, creative writing, and mini art-projects to further explore algae as a design material. Although we are working with a biologist, Jin, to better understand algae, it is also up to us to learn the language so that we can design with it – just as someone might learn programming or C4D. Thus this week, I went down to the the local canal and collected water samples in the hopes of growing my own algae. We will check back in a few weeks on their progress.

Learning to create ‘growth’ patterns

Lynn: Soft robots are versatile, often safer in interaction with environment, more energy-efficient for industry and low-cost to manufacture. The elastic and deformable bodies of soft robots allow them to be capable in dealing with uncertain tasks and environments such as locomotion in rough terrains, grasping uncertain structured objects and being compliant with their intrinsic passive dynamics.

Thanks to the adaptable and flexible material, those difficult performance which normally need complex digital computation and mechanical assembly in rigid robots can be easier realized by soft robots. But one of the biggest challenges is control – often, classical approaches such as motors and servos controlled joint-rotation locomotion do not apply because it is difficult to accurately calculate the soft material’s attribute and apply a constant control parametre.

Morphological computation is an idea stems from biological systems, which explores the computation in physical systems, namely using the whole body to control basic actions. This brings us to the control of soft robot’s ‘body’ instead of ‘skeleton’ in traditional robot control.

fig 03. picking up a pen and drawing

An example for ‘body control’ concept is Jaeger-Lipson coffee-balloon gripper(fig 01-03)(1), which is a round solid ball filled with ground coffee. Depend on air pressure within it, the body can be either soft or hard. Its grasp ability is adaptive to the objects have different shape and texture, but the terminate control is by switching the vacuum on or off. By exploiting its soft morphology, the end effector adapts itself to the object without the need for any explicit modelling or control.

This example shows that in the research of soft robots, material property should be parallel to the mechanism research, a very clear propose of morphology computation is that some aspects of control can be outsourced to the body for these functions are already “encoded” within it.

fig 04. tendon driven octopus arm

Through the research into robotic mechanism, I found some of the actuation methods in soft robots are very teleological and are lacking in variable interactive possibility. Their structures are designed for specific purpose or function. For example, the tendon driven octopus-arm-like robots proposed by Renda et al. (2)(fig.04) and many other scholars(fig.05). They are adaptive to practical purpose like terrain detection or underwater undertaking, but their capability will be largely discounted if we move them to an interactive environment, because the worm-like motion is unclear in expression and may bring themselves into the ‘uncanny valley’. While rigid robot control still has the advantage in explicit expression and larger scale locomotion. Therefore, I think research into a combined area of morphology computation and digital computation can be an ideal site to develop ideas of robotic-human artistic interaction design.

(1) Brown, E., Rodenberg, N., Amend, J., Mozeika, A., Steltz, E., Zakin, M. R., Lipson, H. and Jaeger, H. M. (2010): Universal robotic gripper based on the jamming of granular material.

(2) F Renda1, M Cianchetti, M Giorelli, A Arienti and C Laschi. (2012) : A 3D steady-state model of a tendon-driven continuum soft manipulator inspired by the octopus arm.

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