Luxo Jr., the bubbly, bobbing drafting lamp that serves as Pixar’s mascot, is proof that mundane objects can be brought to life affectingly when endowed with the right personalities (earlier proof: that adorable teacup from Beauty and the Beast, but he had eyeballs, so that’s not really fair). Of course, those objects only made us go “aww” through the magic of animation. But Pinokio, a brilliant project by three students at Victoria University of Wellington, proves that the concept can hold true in the physical world, even when the lamp in question is wrought out of steel and aluminum.
For the project, students Shanshan Zhou, Adam Ben-Dror, and Joss Doggett brought an ordinary desk lamp to life with the help of six servo motors, a webcam, some Arduino, and a bit of Processing magic. In place of a bulb, the webcam tracks the movement of people sitting nearby, provoking the lamp to mug, hide, investigate, and, when ignored, beg for attention. Thanks to a modified microphone, it can respond to noises, too. The result is something that doesn’t just respond to certain triggers with a few rote movements, but rather an object that behaves expressively and dynamically in accordance with what’s going on around it.
The trio of students didn’t simply set out to recreate Luxo, however–they looked a number of everyday objects, like Coke cans, chairs, books, and newspapers, before deciding on the lamp as the final candidate. But their key insight was in deciding to bring that object to life in a way that made made sense for that specific object. Zhou says she drew from lessons she learned in animation classes, things like character building and story telling, to bring Pinokio to life.
“We came up with interaction ideas based on thinking in the shoes of a real lamp,” she explains. “What would a lamp do if it was alive, and asked to sit on the desk staring at you reading your books all day?” The answer, clearly, is not to just sit there calmly and shine light wherever you ask it to. Pinokio is inquisitive. It has its own agenda. It’s the difference between a bot that’s servile by design and one that’s more independent–broadly speaking, the difference between C-3PO and R2-D2.
“We didn’t really start with making a robot in mind, but to make something ‘alive,'” Zhou continues. “Therefore we used to words like ’emotions,’ ‘personalities,’ ‘sensitivity,’ ‘curiosity,’ and ‘childishness’ to guide ourselves through the brainstorming and conceptualizing stage, rather than words we commonly associate with robots, such as ‘intelligence,’ ‘tasks,’ and ‘preciseness.'” I think even 3PO himself would say it’s accurate to describe him as “precise” and his squat counterpart as “childish.”
But in terms of real-world robotics, Pinokio sort of flips the current paradigm of the at-home bot on its head: instead of creating new machines that perform certain functions and replace old tools (ahem, Roomba), Pinokio shows how those old tools can take on personalities of their own.
Judging from the video the team put together, that personality can come at the expense of functionality. You gain a bit of emotional companionship, you lose the ability to tell your lamp to stay put and shine light on your desk. Or even the ability to get it to shut off when you want it to–like the Most Useless Machine Ever, Pinokio mischievously nudges his on-off switch back into the “on” position after a user tries to flip it “off.”
Of course, that articulating arm can only reach so far, and unlike Chip from Beauty and the Beast, or the original Pinocchio himself, both of whom relied on magic for their lifeblood, this Pinokio still relies on electricity, and you can always shut him up definitively by pulling the plug.