University professors combine ‘robotics with theater’

October 25, 2011
Red and Black
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University professors combine ‘robotics with theater’
By Lisa Glaser

Brandon Raab, a first-year graduate student in dramatic media from Chicago, said he has to “flip a switch” in his mind between his classes on Tuesdays and Thursdays. He leaves a Ph.D. class discussing innovative playwrights like Harold Pinter and Samuel Beckett — and then learns about robots and how to make one theatrically perform.

Raab is enrolled in Interactive Media and Live Performance, taught by David Saltz, the head of the theatre and film studies department, as well as the executive director of Ideas for Creative Exploration (ICE), a University research initiative in the arts.

“Combining robotics with theater is so immediately fun,” Saltz said. “It’s so playful. … And you have to learn the computer stuff to make that happen and it’s just totally gratifying and fun. It makes it so much easier to gain those technical skills when there’s a real reward and immediate satisfying feedback.”

Saltz, along with three other University professors from different departments, spoke Monday night at the Miller Learning Center about their work with robotics. Saltz began using a robot in his class, with students learning how to program it to perform in various ways, this semester after Chi Thai, a biological and agricultural engineering associate professor reached out to him about working together with the robot. The class’s midterm consisted of a group project creating a performance with the robot.

“You’re trying think creatively, trying to think artistically,” Raab said. “For our project, we had a scene and there was a character and trying to think of how to make the relation lifelike and work on the dialogue, but then there’s the coding and programming that goes into it.”

Thai, along with Walter Potter, a computer science professor and director of the Artificial Intelligence Institute, and Jason Cantarella, a mathematics associate professor, lectured at the robotics seminar.

“[The seminar] was a great example of how expansive the field is right now,” Raab said. “If you’re excited in robotics, just how many ways there are to think about even just the concept of robotics, the mathematics, the science, the philosophy, the art, the performance behind it, there’s many different ways to approach it.”

Michael Meindl, a recent graduate of the MFA in dramatic media program and first year computer science master’s student from Butternut, Wisc., agreed with the idea that robotics can be an all-encompassing field. Meindl has taken classes taught by both Saltz and Thai.

“I think each person really gave us a sense of what they’re interested in, in terms of themselves, but also in terms of their particular department,” Meindl said. “Each one comes from a very distinct a separate department that don’t really talk to one another all that often, so I think the ability to have this kind of roundtable or seminar with people who don’t normally talk in the same timeframe, is really cool.”

Saltz wants the robot, named ZeebZob, to be used in other classes and for other projects in the future. He said he wants to create a robotics performance class, which touches on his own interests in puppetry and animation.

“It’s not just for class projects,” Saltz said. “[We’re] trying to create something that isn’t just interesting as an academic exercise or as an engineering exercise, but is really, really fun to watch.”

Meindl sees robotics as field which connects many other fields, whether it’s Potter discussing how robots can be used practically in years to come from a computer science perspective or Cantarella discussing thinking theoretically about robots and how they navigate their environment.

“[A robot] is just an inanimate object, so what can we layer on top it?” Meindl said. “In terms of performance, in terms of computer science, in terms of philosophy, in terms of cultural ideas, in terms of history, so you get that all combined and it becomes a really interesting, exciting nucleus of people and interests. That anybody can walk into a robotics class or environment and find something that they can contribute, I think that’s really what’s exciting for me.”

For Saltz, the use of robotics in the classroom is an extension of what he already loves and teaches – theater.

“The idea of really taking something and making it come alive, I think that’s what theater is all about,” Saltz said. “It’s amazing.”