In a nondescript central Los Angeles neighborhood sits a renovated warehouse, home to the Southern California Institute of Architecture, or Sci-Arc for short. The small graduate school, which is noted for producing architects who go on to work in highly specialized fields like digital animation, is run by a core group of LA architects who place special emphasis on advanced fabrication. The school’s new Robot House, for example, is a dedicated laboratory for students interested in, well, learning how to program robots.
Robotic arms, to be more specific. The Robot House (it’s more like a room) has five of them, Staübli-brand machines with “hands” that can be programmed to do just about anything. Initiated in spring of last year, the lab has already produced some pretty cool stuff. The latest is a complex acrylic sculpture called Hot Networks, authored by Brandon Kruysman and Jonathan Proto, the two young designers Sci-Arc appointed to run and teach the Robot House lab.
In Hot Networks, Kruysman and Proto have given each robotic arm a different task: one positions the work surface, a another picks up and places a plastic cylinder, a third heats up the plastic as it’s set into place, melting and deforming against the others. Another arm airbrushes the cooled pieces, and the fifth arm films the whole thing for posterity. It’s a bit like earlier robotic building experiments (like this one, in which an arm builds a brick wall), but about five times more complex.
The highly choreographed network is made possible by a programming language the duo wrote specifically for the Robot House. Esperant.O, as it’s cleverly called, translates MAYA’s dynamic systems (like skeletons and moving parts) into a language that the mechanical arms can understand. “Esperant.O opens up an entirely new way to engage making through industrial robotics,” write the duo on their website. MAYA, an animation and rendering software that’s typically used to make stuff move on-screen, is being used to control real-time moving parts. For anyone unfamiliar with the software, a vastly over-simplified analogy would be a cartoonist who’s invented a way to control real-life people using his pencil and paper.
It’s funny that we never really get a good look at the morphing plastic sculpture. But the ambivalence the designers seem to feel about showing off the piece plays to the concept behind Robot House. The final product might look cool, sure, but it’s just a byproduct of the real work – the programming itself.