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All posts by Eric Schweikardt

Eric is the CEO & Design Director at Modular Robotics.
One of the Modular Robotics projects I’m most proud of is the MOSS Huck Tank. It’s a MOSS kit designed with Huck Gee, one of my favorite artists. It’s gorgeous, and you can drive it around with your phone and shoot Nerf darts remotely! huck-main-moss Only 186 Huck Tanks will ever be made. Most of those went to fulfill the MOSS Kickstarter campaign, and severely tested the limits of the modbot Production and Operations team. We’re good at building MOSS, but we set up an entire pad printing production line to do the graphics. Pad printing is basically printing using a rubber stamp-ish tool. Anyway, there are ninety-four different “hits” from the pad printer in a single Huck Tank, and when we got into it, we realized that we had vastly underestimated the amount of time it would take to manufacture these beauties. Fast forward to today, and we’ve built and printed a final run of 55 MOSS Huck Tanks, using the last of the little shogun heads and shields in existence. Art collector? Robot enthusiast? Nerf assassin? Grab one of the last Huck Tanks while you can. Here’s a teaser video from three years ago showing a couple of different prototypes (sans shogun head), and the raw power of the Nerf cannon.
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I was super happy to hear this morning that my friends have officially announced their new company: Misty Robotics. Robots as friends or as part of our families? I think it’s going to be an interesting ride watching them figure this idea out. I first met Ian Bernstein around 2009 or 10. We had just started Modular Robotics in Boulder, and Ian and his co-founder Adam dropped by our shop with half a prototype robot ball that had a bunch of wires sticking out of it. They were in Techstars at the time and wanted to talk about starting a hardware company. They’d eventually become Sphero. Since then, Sphero has become a huge success in the toy market, and between sprints, Ian and I have been able to do some bucket list skiing together: Alaska hili-skiing one year, Chamonix backcountry, Retallack… People often seem sort of amused to meet us on these trips and find that we have toy robot companies a couple of blocks apart in Boulder, but we’ve never felt like competitors. Now, Ian’s continuing to make his vision into reality by spinning off a new company, Misty, and closing a financing.  I’m excited for them.  While companies do indeed battle for space on store shelves, Ian and I are much more interested in the long view; when there will be an entire ecosystem of robot stuff all over our homes and offices. Thousands of tiny robot cubes doing some things, and “personable robots that benefit everyone’s lives” doing others. That’s why I’m so excited to meet the robots that roll out of Misty.
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There are a lot of different ways to build with Cubelets.  Little kids, around 4 or 5, mostly like stacking them into tall towers and large constructions with flashing lights.  Older kids usually build with more focus, snapping together mobile robots that avoid walls or beep when they’re being chased.  Some people like remote-controlling their Cubelets robots with phones and tablets, and some people like integrating LEGO into their constructions.  Super enthusiasts with a lot of patience have been able to reprogram Cubelets in C, unlocking unlimited functionality at the price of a steep learning curve.

Now, using brand-new Cubelets Blockly, anyone can learn to program Cubelets and take robot blocks to a completely different level.  Blockly is a puzzle-piece programming language.  You drag programming pieces around on the screen in an easy interface, but still with all of the power and expandability that text-based typing languages provide.  Rad.  Purists and alpha geeks may still wish to write C programs using Cubelets Flash, but most of us at modbot are tending to use Blockly since it’s so fast for prototyping and quickly exploring ideas.

I just opened up Blockly on my Mac and wrote a simple program: the Paper Towel Dispenser.  An old standby.  You know, wave your hand in front of the sensor and the motor turns on for a few seconds?  It’s a super-simple version, but it worked on the first try!  The program looks like this:

Screen Shot 2016-10-26 at 11.22.42 AM

The program is written for a Distance Cubelet, so it monitors its distance sensor and then, when it detects a hand passing over it, sets its block_value to 200 for a couple of seconds.  I decided to write my program for the Distance Cubelet so that I could line up as many Drive Cubelets as I want to be a little conveyor belt and not have to program any of them.  I’m also dispensing a little aluminum ruler instead of paper towels, but that’s just a technicality.

It’d be easy to rewrite this program for a Drive Cubelet, and then I could stick on any type of Sensor Cubelet (not just Distance) and try to trigger the Drive.

Programming a whole pile of little robots instead of just one is an excellent way to see how there are often multiple ways to solve problems, and how small changes can have huge ripple effects in a complex system.

As I sit here enamored with my unimpressive ruler mover, Sam, our new Robotics Intern, is building a six-legged, catapult-equipped Cubelet/LEGO robot.  And he just finished documenting a Cubelets paper football goalpost robot with three levels of gameplay  which is pretty amazing.

pf finished bot

Programming and interacting with a whole bunch of tiny robots is different from working with just one.  Even though Cubelets Blockly is designed for kids, it contains some pretty advanced functionality.  With a multi-robot system like Cubelets, blocks need to send messages around to other blocks and things are happening in parallel.  We wrote a set of tutorials that highlights the key differences and walks you through building a few robots.

You’ll need a Bluetooth Cubelet and a few other Cubelets to play.  Today, Blockly runs on Macs and PCs, and we’re going to be launching iOS, Android and Chromebook versions later this year.

Happy hacking; let us know if you build something cool!

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Know an amazing undergrad? Please point them in our direction. We have a new paid internship opportunity available for the Fall semester, and it’s a pretty good gig. We’re working hard on some new tools that support advanced Cubelets play: programming tools that will let you change the behavior of one, or more, or all of the Cubelets in a robot construction. The possibilities are, in fact, mathematically endless, and we’re looking for an Undergraduate Research Assistant to build a ton of robots and help us improve and iterate on the system. Why is the intern required to be a currently enrolled undergraduate student? Because through some of our research work, the National Science Foundation has agreed to pay for some of the intern’s compensation. Thanks NSF! Computer science students are obviously welcome, as are students in art, architecture, history, or anything at all. No programming experience is necessary, but if the idea of programming is scary, then this internship might not be a great fit. Creativity and energy are the two most important attributes we’ll look at when screening applicants.
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We’re happy to share with you TWENTY-EIGHT new standards-aligned lesson plans for teaching with Cubelets. You can take a look at them here, sorted by age. We’ve written 22 more, shown with greyed-out “coming soon” boxes, and we’ll publish the rest of these over the next month as we finish up some image editing and format the lessons for web and print. We just couldn’t wait, though, to publish the first 28. We designed and tested these lesson plans over the last seven months by partnering with four local teachers. Each of them did amazing work putting the lesson plans together and iterating on them after trying out the lessons with their students. We’re going to be doing a lot more of this! By the way, if you happen to be at the NSTA conference today, please come by our booth and say hi to Beth Cohen, one of our Education Partners, and hear about some recent work she’s done in the classroom modeling biological systems and putting a robotic spin on history lessons… You’ll see that most lessons are explicitly standards-aligned. Our hope is that this will help you justify your forward-looking work with robot blocks to schools and districts that are mandated to meet standards. We specifically identify the relevant Common Core, Next Generation Science, and ISTE Standards, with Teaching Strategies Gold alignment added for Pre-K and Kindergarten students. If you get the chance to try out some of these lessons in a classroom, we’d love to hear your feedback.
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Last week we launched a Cubelets Operating System update. While the point three makes it sound like a minor update, it’s actually kind of a big deal. OS 4.3 improves a bunch of little things, and it definitively fixes one particularly nefarious bug. You know how we’re always talking about complexity and emergent behavior? About how Cubelets can be a great model for complex systems we see in the world like societies, ecosystems, and economies? About how play with Cubelets will help kids develop skills to solve problems in complex environments? Well, even though we play with Cubelets a lot around here, sometimes emergent problems in complex systems can be a real bear to figure out. Take the Nefarious Bug, for instance. Since the release of OS4, we’ve seen a few Cubelets spontaneously lock up and stop functioning. It happened every once in a while in our factory, and we heard from a few customers that the same thing had happened out in the world. When we took these “bricked” Cubelets apart, we found that each one was missing a tiny little piece of memory — a random line of programming had somehow been erased. And while I can function pretty well having no idea what I ate for breakfast yesterday, the microcontrollers inside Cubelets are a little more brittle, their memories need to basically be perfect in order for them to function at all. I’ll spare you the rundown of our debugging process. Suffice it to say that hypotheses were made, tested, and then re-made. Ideas and hopes and dreams were repeatedly generated and then dashed. It took weeks, but we finally figured it out. It was the combined behavior of a mechanical bug, an electronic bug, and a software bug, but we fixed it just with software. The particulars of the problem are a bit obscure. Are you familiar with the Rotate Cubelet? If you’ve ever wondered how the rotating face can conduct power and data without a bunch of wires getting twisted up inside, the answer is that it uses a slip ring. Slip rings have contacts that slide around a rotating ring, using friction to make electrical contact. Sometimes this connection isn’t perfect (at least not as perfect as a soldered wire) so there tends to be some noise on the power line near Rotate Cubelets. While this shouldn’t be a problem, a big Cubelets robot has power flowing throughout all of the Cubelets and through all of the faces, and a bunch of noise on a bunch of connectors all at once ended up causing low voltage transients that wreaked a little havoc on those tiny, tiny brains. Previously, Cubelets were riding a fine line between the voltage level at which they’d automatically shut down and the voltage level at which they could brick themselves and apparently (in less than 0.1% of Cubelets), noisy rotatey power connections could shock the Cubelet into crossing that line. Once we finally figured this out, it was pretty straightforward to repair by changing a few settings in software and testing profusely with the noisiest Rotate Cubelets we could find. Now OS 4.3 is out in the world. I’d recommend upgrading all of your Cubelets. Its super easy to do using the iOS or Android Cubelets app.
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Have you ever read Vehicles?  It’s a favorite around modbot because it’s basically a set of thought experiments about how we can understand the world through simple robotic elements.  As Braitenberg adds simple pieces of technology to tiny robots, the reader starts to see how lifelike complexity really can emerge from simple building blocks. One of the little technological enhancements that results in interesting emergent behavior is stacking up simple sensors in a grid: this enables a robot to detect not only whether anything is in front of it, but to detect certain things.  Apparently, we actually do a little bit of thinking with our eyes. Take this simple Cubelets robot, for example.  It’s a grid of twelve Distance sensors configured into a secret lock that can only be opened by a special key.  Sure, Cubelets are robot blocks, and the resolution of the sensor grid is pretty low, but 2^12 means that there are 4096 possible combinations for a secret key.  Pretty hard to hack for a toy. Status lights are boring, though, right?  Since Cubelets are modular, we’ll just snap on a few Drive blocks instead and turn the lock into a locked door.  Look, candy! I built these two robots a couple of weeks ago with a brand-new Cubelets programming system and I’ve been waiting to share them until it’s ready to launch. Today’s the day; if you’re interested, take a look at Cubelets Flash, download it, and start building some crazy custom robots. Your Cubelets will all need to be running OS4 to connect to Cubelets Flash. Right now, if you have old Cubelets, you’ll have to use a mobile device running the Cubelets app to upgrade them first. This workflow is a little funny because we screwed up. We used to be able to program OS3 Cubelets using Cubelets Studio, and when we launched OS4 it was incompatible with Studio. It took us longer to release Flash than we thought it would, and I know that a lot of you are pretty excited to program your OS4 Cubelets. Right now it’s in beta release with only the most important functionality so that we could get it launched for you to play with as quickly as possible. Enjoy.
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We just had a two-day Modular Robotics retreat in the mountains.  We skied on Wednesday at Winter Park, stayed in a big house in Fraser, cooked together, and spent Thursday working on strategy and planning.

The atmosphere Thursday morning was charged with bacon grease.
The atmosphere Thursday morning was charged with bacon grease.

This year was different from last year; we brought all of the carpet people (carpet people are all non-elves) at modbot instead of a carpet subset.  It was great: every time we take a day away we seem to make amazing progress.  I started off Thursday with a little story about why I Modular Robotics and what gets me up in the morning and I thought I’d share it here too:

I’ve spent some time recently with my friends’ kid who is three years old. Her incessant “why” questions can often prove thought provoking. No matter how deep she digs, you can never tell a kid that something is just because it is. Although questions of fate and trajectory are interesting for adults to discuss, telling a kid that something happened because “it was meant to be” is just a cop out. Her lines of questioning got me thinking deeply about why Modular Robotics?

Of course, that question has many answers. Because of luck, coincidence, being in a certain place at the right time, and because of a million books read, chance encounters, and free associations.  But why am I doing Modular Robotics? is easier to answer.

I started and am running Modular Robotics because I want to give people tools that will help them think better about complex systems, emergence, and the ways in which the world really works. Why? Because better thinking about complexity will help us solve the world’s big problems.

I get frustrated sometimes not just by big problems in the world, but in our reaction to them.  It feels to me like most of the time, our reaction (and probably, the way that we think) is often gross oversimplification.  It’s an election year, for example, and if we think hard, we know that platforms and governance comprise an extremely nuanced and complex system, with thousands of interacting parts and conflicting aims.  A glance at the news, however, paints issues in terms of black and white, red and blue, praise or outrage.  Things are more complicated than that, and a failure or refusal to dig a little deeper and try to understand things a little better leaves us making bad decisions.

Consider social problems, mass shootings for example.  It’s universally recognized that we should all work together to reduce this sort of thing, but it’s hard to find a smart conversation about it and not a thousand shouting matches that sound like “I love guns” versus “I hate guns”.  The world is not that simple, and I think we can learn to think more deeply about problems in the world and make forward progress as a species.

To really understand complex systems, patterns, and emergent behavior, we could all study complexity theory, cellular automata, and chaos, but those are abstract, rarefied fields accessible usually only to academics.  I think we’ll have better results getting kids to think differently about complexity, because their minds aren’t already made up and set in their ways.

Complexity science is all about taking things apart: looking at real world systems and distilling them down into theory.  But kids, and adults, often learn best by building things.  When we build things, or design things, we can see many different combinations of simple pieces we understand.

People have been trying to give kids little models of complex systems for a while, but most of those have been apps (the Sims, even) or other systems that encourage you to select some pixels and watch scenarios play out on a display.  I think that sometimes pixels on a screen aren’t the best models for real-world systems, but that sometimes, robot blocks might be.

I’m not saying that playing with Cubelets teaches kids complexity science.  But it helps them develop intuitions about complexity, emergence, patterns, networks, computation, and lots of STEM subjects, so that when they encounter those things later, they make sense.  Playing with LEGO as a kid, by way of analogy, didn’t teach me the physics of friction, balance, shape, mass, and force, but when I got to Physics in twelfth grade, the laws made sense, and the equations were just another way to describe phenomena that I was already familiar with.  Some people, who hadn’t gained these intuitions through experience, were lost in a sea of Greek letters.

I think that sets of robot blocks, designed, distributed, and well supported, can help make our kids smarter about the world than we are.  I want to have a really broad impact with Cubelets and change as many kids’ minds as we can.  That’s what gets me up in the morning.

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factory1 Modular Robotics is in full North Pole mode, building as many Cubelets as we possibly can.  Demand for the new Cubelets TWELVE kit is off the chart, so we’re working extra shifts and late into the night six days a week to make as many as possible.  In other words, the factory is crazy.  It occurred to me that unless you’ve been by, the last photos of the factory that you may have seen were from April when we moved into our new, then empty, space.  The architects who helped us with the remodel came by the other day and put up some beautiful pictures of our factory in a blog post.  Take a look here! factory2
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