This robot made a 100,000-domino ‘Super Mario Bros.’ mural in 24 hours

A new robot known as the Dominator has set a Guinness World Record for placing 100,000 dominos in just over 24 hours. Created by YouTuber and former NASA engineer Mark Rober, the Dominator is the result of more than five years of work. Rober had help from two freshmen from Stanford University and a Bay Area software engineer in creating the googly-eyed robot. The group programmed more than 14,000 lines of code, and outfitted it with components like omnidirectional wheels and 3D-printed funnels to create what Rober says is a “friendly robot that’s super good at only one thing: setting up a butt-ton of dominos really, really fast.”

Up against professional domino artist Lily Hevesh, the Dominator used its ability to lay down 300 tiles all at once to work about 10 times faster than a human. It took the robot about two hours to put down over 9,000 dominos.

While the Dominator is the face of the project, a lot of its efficiency comes from a separate sorting mechanism that consists of a Kuka robotic arm and almost three miles of Hot Wheels tracks. A series of conveyor belts ferry the dominions by color before the Kuka arm deposits them in the appropriate chute. When the Dominator visits the station for a refill, the lower platform slides away, instantly loading its 3D-printed funnels with all the dominos it needs to lay down 300 at once. In this way, downtime is kept at a minimum.

To put its final achievement in context, it would take a team of seven skilled domino builders about a full week to make the Super Mario Bros.-like mural the Dominator needed a little more than a day to complete.

Watch Cassie the bipedal robot run a 5K

Cassie, a bipedal robot that's all legs, has successfully run five kilometers on a single charge, all without having a tether. The machine serves as the basis for Agility Robotics' delivery robot Digit, as TechCrunch notes, though you may also remember it for "blindly" navigating a set of stairs. Oregon State University engineers were able to train Cassie in a simulator to enable it to go up and down a flight of stairs without the use of cameras or LIDAR. Now, engineers from the same team were able to train Cassie to run using a deep reinforcement learning algorithm.

According to the team, Cassie teaching itself using the technique gave it the capability to stay upright without a tether by shifting its balance while running. The robot had to learn to make infinite subtle adjustments to be able to accomplish the feat. Yesh Godse, an undergrad from the OSU Dynamic Robotics Laboratory, explained: "Deep reinforcement learning is a powerful method in AI that opens up skills like running, skipping and walking up and down stairs."

The team first tested Cassie's capability by having it run on turn for five kilometers, which it finished with a time of 43 minutes and 49 seconds. Cassie finished its run across the OSU campus in 53:03. It took a bit longer because it included six and a half minutes of dealing with technical issues. The robot fell once due to a computer overheating and then again after it executed a turn too quickly. But Jeremy Dao, another team member from the lab, said they were able to "reach the limits of the hardware and show what it can do." The work the team does will help expand the understanding of legged locomotion and could help make bipedal robots become more common in the future.

The Morning After: Lucasfilm hired a YouTuber with deepfake skills

The power of deepfake tech to hone digital effects into incredibly realistic video can’t be underestimated. We’ve seen a top-level Tom Cruise impersonator transformed with a high-level deepfake artist, and now companies — and film studios — are taking notice.

Luke Skywalker's CGI face in The Mandalorian was met with a lot of criticism, and one fan’s efforts to improve it resulted in a new job. Lucasfilm has hired YouTuber Shamook to ensure future projects won’t have wobbly representations of actors that are either much older or perhaps even deceased now. The latter, however, remains an ethical conundrum in itself, as demonstrated by the recent Anthony Bourdain documentary.

— Mat Smith

A magnetic helmet shrunk a deadly tumor in world-first test

The user-friendly medical device can be operated at home.

We've seen helmets and AI that can spot brain tumors, but a new magnetic hard hat can actually treat them, too. Researchers used a helmet that generates a magnetic field to shrink a deadly tumor by a third. The 53-year-old patient who underwent the treatment ultimately passed away due to an unrelated injury, but an autopsy showed that the procedure had removed 31 percent of the tumor mass from his brain. Continue reading.

The best Apple AirTag accessories you can buy

Accessories for your accessory.

Apple AirTags with cases
Valentina Palladino / Engadget

Apple’s tiny Bluetooth trackers have one critical flaw: no built-in keychain hole. That means anyone who buys AirTags has to buy holders or cases to attach them to their stuff.

It’s a very Apple way of milking as much money out of a new product as possible since many will simply buy Apple’s own AirTag holders. But those aren’t the only options available — plenty of accessory companies have already made AirTag cases. We take a look at all the options. Continue reading.

A new Microsoft Surface Duo might come with a big camera upgrade

And possibly a new color.

Microsoft Surface Duo 2 leak
Tech Rat

Microsoft's double-screen Surface Duo landed with outdated specs and a hard-to-swallow price, but the company might be looking for a do-over. A Tech Rat leak suggests a Surface Duo with a new conspicuous rear camera bump with three sensors might be on the way — as well as a new black look. Continue reading.

LG's new Tone Free earbuds have a case that plugs into headphone ports

They also feature spatial audio.

LG Tone Free FP
LG Tone Free FP

LG has revealed a new family of wireless earbuds, and while germ-killing UV tech is still on board, the coolest part may be backward compatibility. The high-end FP9 model has a charging case that plugs into a headphone jack to work as a Bluetooth dongle. The feature could be handy during flights and when dealing with wired environments of yesteryear, like gym treadmills. The headphones feature active noise cancellation and spatial audio compatibility, too. The LG Tone Free FP series will be available this month, price still TBC. Continue reading.

iOS 14.7.1 arrives with fix for Apple Watch unlocking bugIt also fixes a security vulnerability Apple says may have been exploited.

Apple has pushed out a new update to iOS 14 for iPhone and iPad owners. While there are no new features, it addresses a bug that broke Apple's Unlock with iPhone integration, preventing Touch ID-equipped phones from unlocking Apple Watch devices. So if you use an older iPhone with your Apple wearable, you'll want to download the update as soon as possible. Continue reading.

Why every robot needs a spiffy hat

If you thought the classic ‘pants on a dog’ problem was tricky, try it with treads.

As robots increasingly move into our everyday lives, a new kind of clothing revolution could soon be upon us once again, according to a new research study out of New York’s Cornell University.

“We believe that robot clothes present an underutilized opportunity for the field of designing interactive systems,” the team argues in What Robots Need From Clothing. It’s not simply a matter of tossing human clothing on a robotic chassis. “What robot clothes are is integrally tied to what robots need from clothing. Robot clothing should analogously fulfill needs robots have, rather than just being human clothes on a robot,” the researchers wrote. What will that entail? Continue reading.

But wait, there’s more...

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Hubble finds evidence of water vapor on Jupiter's largest moon

Turtle Beach's first gamepad pairs its audio expertise with great ergonomics

Autonomous quadrotor beats two human pilots in a drone race

Why every robot needs a spiffy hat

First developed more than 100,000 years ago, clothing is one of humanity’s earliest — and most culturally significant — inventions, providing wearers not just protection from the environment and elements but also signifying social status, membership in a community and their role within that group. As robots increasingly move out of labs, off of factory floors and into our everyday lives, a similar garment revolution could soon be upon us once again, according to a new research study out of New York’s Cornell University.

“We believe that robot clothes present an underutilized opportunity for the field of designing interactive systems,” the team argues in What Robots Need From Clothing, which was submitted to the In Designing Interactive Systems Conference 2021. “Clothes can help robots become better robots — by helping them be useful in a new, wider array of contexts, or better adapt and function in the contexts they are already in.”

“I started by looking at how different materials would move on robots and thinking about the readability of that motion — like, what is the robot's intention based on the way materials move on the robot,” Natalie Friedman, a PhD student at Cornell Tech and lead author on the paper, explained to Engadget. “From there, I started thinking about all the different social functions that clothes have for people and how that could influence how the robot is viewed.”

While tomorrow’s robots may wear white button down dress shirts and black bow ties while serving hors d'oeuvres to party guests or wear candy stripes while working as nurses, it’s not simply a matter of tossing human clothing onto a robotic chassis. “What robot clothes are is integrally tied to what robots need from clothing. Robot clothing should analogously fulfill needs robots have, rather than just being human clothes on a robot,” the researchers wrote.

Robo-clothes could take any number of forms, depending on their wearer’s specific function. Robotic firefighters, such as the Thermite from Howe and Howe, might theoretically be issued heat-resistant overcoats akin to what humans wear but embedded with thermochromic ink to provide the robot’s operator an easy visual reference to the area’s ambient temperature or indicate that the robot is in danger of overheating. Conversely, search-and-rescue bots could wear waterproof garments when conducting oceanic operations and then strap on extra-grippy boots when searching for lost hikers in mountainous terrain or survivors of a building collapse.

"I think this work is important to helping engineers and technologists understand the functional importance of aesthetics and signaling in design,” Cornell Tech professor and co-author Wendy Ju, said in a recent blog. “It's not ‘just fashion’ - what the robot wears helps people understand how to interact with it in ways that are critical to safety and task execution."

Overall, the use of swappable attire could lead to more generalized robot designs as the specific capabilities the clothing provides don't have to be baked into the robot’s construction. “It is more difficult to build a new robot than to build new clothes,” Friedman said. “I think that clothes are going to influence robot design and robot designs are going to influence clothes. Maybe it'll start in one direction — clothes made to fit robots — but, in the future, I think that robots might be built to better fit in clothes.” She notes that Pepper, though recently discontinued by SoftBank, offers an online merch store with a wide variety of costumes and outfits for the robot to wear including outfits designating cultural, national, professional and religious affiliations.

Pepper human-shaped robot while celebrating the Buddhist funeral rites to the Tokyo Int'l Funeral & Cemetery Show in Tokyo August 23, 2017. Hundreds of funeral home operators, cemeteries operators, crematorium operators, traders, suppliers, buyers, professional associations and investors gather at this professional funeral event in Japan.  (Photo by Alessandro Di Ciommo/NurPhoto via Getty Images)
NurPhoto via Getty Images

But clothing on robots isn’t just for their own benefit, it also serves to demystify and humanize these cutting-edge machines in the eyes of the people they’re working with. For example, clothing could help protect a robot’s sense of shame — or rather that of its user.

“The need for wire modesty — to cover up nudity — stems from anthropomorphic priggishness, since robots do not get embarrassed about wires poking out of them,” the researchers wrote. “However, both humanoid and non-humanoid robots have pragmatic reasons to maintain a clean and covered aesthetic, because exposed wires present a real risk to function. Any wire that is pulled out or cut will remove power or signal to a subsystem, and that can be risky to the robot and any people or objects in the environment.”

“I definitely see a future where [when robots] aren't wearing clothes, it might look a little funny,” Friedman added. “I mean we are just mapping our ideas onto robots, right? Robots don’t have consciousness, so they don't feel shame.”

However, putting clothes on robots could also prove problematic especially if the apparel style has been culturally appropriated. You can bet your bottom dollar that the first cannabis dispensary to dress an automated budtender in rastafarian garb is going to make headlines — and not the kind that are good for business — same as if you outfitted a Roomba with a Native American headdress. “Hawaiian shirts, for example, used to be a marker of ‘casual Friday’ office attire, but more recently are affiliated with the extremist ‘Boogaloo Boys,’” the researchers wrote.

Despite the potential drawbacks to putting pants on robots, doing so could help make the entire field of research more attractive to a new generation of roboticists. “I like to think about girls in robotics,” Friedman said. “When they're young, I think robotics seems like a really intimidating thing but I see clothes as kind of a way to welcome, you know, the stereotypically feminine... skills that women have. I see clothes as a way to welcome girls into [robotics].”

Alphabet’s latest moonshot aims to make industrial robots more practical

Alphabet has launched another company in its X moonshot factory, and this one may be its most ambitious robotics project to date. The just-opened firm, Intrinsic, plans to make industrial robots more accessible to people and businesses that couldn't otherwise justify the effort involved to teach the machines. You could see robotic manufacturing in more countries, for example, or small businesses that can automate production that previously required manual labor.

Intrinsic will focus on software tools that make these robots easier to use, more flexible and more affordable. To that end, the company has been testing a mix of software tools that include AI techniques like automated perception, motion planning and reinforcement learning. Company chief Wendy Tan-White has relevant experience, too. She started the "world's first" software-as-a-service site builder to make web development more accessible, launched early online banking and lending services, and helped nurture startups as a VP at X.

The technology is still early, but there are already promising results. During its development time at X, the team trained a robot to make a USB connection in two hours (instead of programming it over hundreds of hours) and had robotic arms build simple furniture (shown below). Automation wouldn't be "realistic or affordable" for efforts like these using existing technology, Intrinsic said.

Intrinsic industrial robots use perception, force control and planning to assemble furniture
Intrinsic/X

The new company still has much work to do. It's now focused more on creating a practical product and "validating" its tech. It's also hunting for partners in car manufacturing, electronics and healthcare that currently use industrial robots. If Intrinsic succeeds, though, it could make robotics more equitable and fill gaps in production. The company even suggests that its work could help the environment — the closer robotic factories are to people, the lower the emissions needed to transport goods to customers.

This might prove challenging. Rethink Robotics spent years developing collaborative robots that learn through simple human guidance, only to shut down as sales fell short. X moonshot companies also aren't guaranteed to succeed — look at Loon's fate as an example. Alphabet's money could help where companies like Rethink struggled, however, and Intrinsic is focused more on solving overall robotics problems rather than specific scenarios. This effort might stand a better chance than most.

Alphabet’s latest moonshot aims to make industrial robots more practical

Alphabet has launched another company in its X moonshot factory, and this one may be its most ambitious robotics project to date. The just-opened firm, Intrinsic, plans to make industrial robots more accessible to people and businesses that couldn't otherwise justify the effort involved to teach the machines. You could see robotic manufacturing in more countries, for example, or small businesses that can automate production that previously required manual labor.

Intrinsic will focus on software tools that make these robots easier to use, more flexible and more affordable. To that end, the company has been testing a mix of software tools that include AI techniques like automated perception, motion planning and reinforcement learning. Company chief Wendy Tan-White has relevant experience, too. She started the "world's first" software-as-a-service site builder to make web development more accessible, launched early online banking and lending services, and helped nurture startups as a VP at X.

The technology is still early, but there are already promising results. During its development time at X, the team trained a robot to make a USB connection in two hours (instead of programming it over hundreds of hours) and had robotic arms build simple furniture (shown below). Automation wouldn't be "realistic or affordable" for efforts like these using existing technology, Intrinsic said.

Intrinsic industrial robots use perception, force control and planning to assemble furniture
Intrinsic/X

The new company still has much work to do. It's now focused more on creating a practical product and "validating" its tech. It's also hunting for partners in car manufacturing, electronics and healthcare that currently use industrial robots. If Intrinsic succeeds, though, it could make robotics more equitable and fill gaps in production. The company even suggests that its work could help the environment — the closer robotic factories are to people, the lower the emissions needed to transport goods to customers.

This might prove challenging. Rethink Robotics spent years developing collaborative robots that learn through simple human guidance, only to shut down as sales fell short. X moonshot companies also aren't guaranteed to succeed — look at Loon's fate as an example. Alphabet's money could help where companies like Rethink struggled, however, and Intrinsic is focused more on solving overall robotics problems rather than specific scenarios. This effort might stand a better chance than most.

Soul of Animal GX Go Kitten Super Robot Action Figure: Sweded Voltron

Taiwanese toy shop Bid Toys won toymaker of the year in my books with its Soul of Animal GX Go Kitten, a parody of the OG Voltron that replaces the Lion Force with cats and boxes. As an olive branch to competitors, the action figure can’t disassemble into separate cats and boxes. Otherwise, all other toymakers would’ve had to shut down and think about what they’re even doing with their lives.

The 7″-tall action figure has articulated arms and wings, and its head can also be twisted to reveal a henohenomoheji.

Those feet cats have to be named 2020 and 2021. You can pre-order the Soul of Animal GX GOo Kitten from BigBadToyStore for $80 (USD). Curiously, the online store mentions that this figure is “[p]art of the Soul of Animal line.” What’s next? A crocodile Mazinger Z? A fennec fox Getter Robo? The possibilities are, well, they’re not endless, but they’re fun to think about.

 

Soft robot can play piano thanks to ‘air-powered’ memory

Soft robots still tend to rely on hard electronics to function, but a new invention might reduce that need for unyielding chips. UC Riverside researchers have developed pneumatic computer memory that they used to help a soft robot play keyboards.

Instead of conventional transistors and electric circuits, the "air-powered" memory relies on microfluidic valves that control airflow. Atmospheric pressure in a given valve represents a binary "0," while a vacuum indicates a "1." The researchers' memory has a complex-enough array of these valves to function like an 8-bit RAM chip — not exactly powerful, but good enough that a pair of soft robot hands can play "Mary Had a Little Lamb" at a slow but steady pace.

The absence of positive pressure makes this particularly safe — there's no danger of the memory exploding in mid-use.

The technology is far from ready for everyday use. Besides needed improvements to complexity and speed, a robot would need soft versions of processors and other components to completely eliminate the need for rigid electronics. The goal is clear, however. Pneumatic memory could at least reduce the need for chips in soft robots, and points to a future of completely flexible robotics that shouldn't hurt you if there's a collision.

These non-humanoid robots express emotion by reacting to physical touch, just like plants do!





Most often, we only see plants moving and growing when they’re filmed in slow-motion for nature documentaries. But even in those slow scenes, watching plants bloom and grow into themselves feels emotional. It’s like watching a baby tiger wake up from a cat nap on the big screen, except it doesn’t have a face and it’s green, not furry. Inspired by the growth cycle and emotive movement of plant life, student designer Keunwook Kim designed Post-Plant, a collection of non-humanoid robots that respond to and move through non-verbal, physical interaction.

Following a period of researching how humans can read emotion from non-verbal cues, Kim gathered that arousal (dynamic energy), valence (intrinsic attractiveness), and stance (visual disposition) can each be interpreted as signs for emotional analysis. Applying this information to Post-Plant, Kim’s non-humanoid robots do not express emotion through facial expression, but through movement and changing forms. Built into each one of his Post-Plant robots, Kim incorporated a motor interface that combines an input and output system, registering when the robot is touched and responding with movement.

For example, when the top of Kim’s green robot, which could also be an interpretation of Maypole dancing from Midsommar, is turned, the robot responds with arousal, by spinning its ‘leaves.’ Signaling when its valence is turning negative, the Post-Plant robot binds its leaves tightly together. Once those leaves are touched by a human, the robot spins its leaves out once more, indicating a changed, positive valence. Similarly, Post-Plant’s white robot spins its propeller-like leaves in response to being touched but shivers to express unhappiness, indicating a need to be touched once more. By studying how humans read emotion, Kim hopes to cultivate the emotional relationship we have with robots and the potential to express a robot’s emotion through non-humanoid, kinetic gestures.

Designer: Keunwook Kim

Keunwook Kim built three different non-humanoid robots resembling various forms of plant life.

Taking cues from nature, Keunwook Kim researched the different ways humans can read emotion through non-human gestures.

When expressing happiness, this robot spins out its leaves, binding them together to express a negative valence.

This robot spins its propeller-like leaves to express happiness, shivering to express the opposite.

To express happiness, the single electrical string that flows through this robot stands erect.

When unhappy, the string falls limp.

A built-in motor translates input and output information acquired via touch to respond with movement.

To express positive valence, this Post-Plant robot rotates freely.

Spinning its propeller, this robot expresses general contentedness.

Inspired by everyday objects familiar to humans, Kim conceived the form of his non-humanoid robots.

Following multiple iterations, Kim felt inspired by plant life to build the bodies of his robots.

The leaves of this robot seem to be constructed from leather bands.

MIT robot could help people with limited mobility dress themselves

Robots have plenty of potential to help people with limited mobility, including models that could help the infirm put on clothes. That's a particularly challenging task, however, that requires dexterity, safety and speed. Now, scientists at MIT CSAIL have developed an algorithm that strikes a balance by allowing for non-harmful impacts rather than not permitting any impacts at all as before. 

Humans are hardwired to accommodate and adjust to other humans, but robots have to learn all that from scratch. For example, it's relatively easy for a person to help someone else dress, as we know instinctively where to hold the clothing item, how people can bend their arms, how cloth reacts and more. However, robots have to be programmed with all that information. 

In the past, algorithms have prevented robots from making any impact with humans at all in the interest of safety. However, that can lead to something called the "freezing robot" problem, where the robot essentially stops moving and can't accomplish the task it set out to do. 

To get past that issue, an MIT CSAIL team led by PhD student Shen Li developed an algorithm that redefines robotic motion safety by allowing for "safe impacts" on top of collision avoidance. This lets the robot make non-harmful contact with a human to achieve its task, as long as its impact on the human is low.

"Developing algorithms to prevent physical harm without unnecessarily impacting the task efficiency is a critical challenge," said Li. "By allowing robots to make non-harmful impact with humans, our method can find efficient robot trajectories to dress the human with a safety guarantee."

For a simple dressing task, the system worked even if the person was doing other activities like checking a phone, as shown in the video above. It does that by combining multiple models for different situations, rather than relying on a single model as before. "This multifaceted approach combines set theory, human-aware safety constraints, human motion prediction and feedback control for safe human-robot interaction," said Carnegie Mellon University's Zackory Erickson.

The research is still in the early stages, but the ideas could be used areas other than just dressing. "This research could potentially be applied to a wide variety of assistive robotics scenarios, towards the ultimate goal of enabling robots to provide safer physical assistance to people with disabilities," Erickson said.