I just gave a talk about tiny robots at the TEDx Front Range event. Excitement! Bright lights! As I began, my slides didn’t appear. There was confusion, audience banter. The AV guy was giving me one of these. So I proceeded, waved my arms around a lot, and talked for ten minutes about how I think tiny robots are going to help our kids become smarter than we are.
I won’t lie: I prepared to give this presentation with a lot of imagery, and when it all of a sudden didn’t appear, I got stressed. Spontaneous challenge! But everything was fine: tiny robots speak for themselves. For those of you who were there, I’m sorry the images didn’t pop up; the talk would have been better if they had. For those of you who weren’t, here are the slides!
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Last weekend, five members of Team Modular Robotics competed in SparkFun Electronics’ soldering competition in Longmont, Colorado, USA. The event was held on the patio of Oskar Blues brewpub and the weather for the event couldn’t have been better. Game on.
There were approximately 70 people participating in the adult competition (SparkFun also had a heat for the young soldering enthusiasts in the crowd). The competition was composed of three different rounds. In each round the competitors had to build one of SparkFun’s soldering kits as quickly and accurately as possible. There were only two metrics on which the competition was judged: quality and time. Your kit had to work and you had to be fast.
The first round had three different heats of about 24 competitors each. The top times from these three heats advanced to the second round of sixteen. Each competitor was working on the Simon Says kit from SparkFun. There were some crazy fast times placing and soldering the 15 electronic components and the remaining mechanical assembly. The fastest time from Modular Robotics on this round belonged to Chris at just over seven minutes; this turned out to be the second fastest time of all competitors. Nick was close behind Chris with another jaw dropping time of 7:30.
Jon, in stripes, might have built your Cubelets.
We were happy and proud to have three of our team move on to the second round of the competition. The kit used for round two was the BigTime Watch kit. This round was significantly more challenging than the first round with most times being twice as long as those in the first round. The soldering level of this kit was similar but the mechanical assembly of the kit proved to be difficult for some of the competitors.
Emily, Chris, and Nick, clearly about to announce a trip to Disneyland.
The third round consisted of the top eight individuals from the BigTime Watch build including both Chris and myself. SparkFun had announced the first two kits prior to the event so many individuals came ready with notes or at least some idea of what they would be building. The third round remained a secret until the top eight sat down at the final table. The kit for the final round was a Mr. Roboto Kit. When you purchase this kit from SparkFun, you receive a pre-populated circuit board with surface mount components. The competitors did not receive such a luxury. Each competitor had to hand solder fifteen surface mount components. This was when the provided flux pen and solder wick really came in handy (at least for me, with multiple bridges on my atmega microcontroller). The first two finishers were lightning quick each finishing in less than 26 minutes. It was really a race for third place at the end. I was the third person to finish the kit but the display on my board didn’t work. It took me a few minutes (seemed like 40 but was actually more like four) of troubleshooting before my full board came to life in about 30 minutes of total work time which was good enough for me to place third.
The final seconds.
SparkFun put together an incredible event with many wonderful people. One of the best parts was chatting with other electronics and soldering enthusiasts between rounds. Some I knew, some I met for the first time but all of them came from interesting places and backgrounds. Although my account of the event may seem as though it was cutthroat right from the start, this was not the case. It was a very welcoming environment for participants from all backgrounds. The tone was friendly and the SparkFun employees were quick and eager to help everyone troubleshoot their boards. We think that the public is finally ready for soldering competitions. Olympics 2016, anyone?
I’m happy to report that we’re busy assembling Cubelets and are finally shipping again. These are the new KT06 boxes! We’ve got a lot of pre-orders to work through — if you have a pending pre-order, expect an email in the next day or two with a new estimated shipping date.
Yesterday was pretty exciting at Modular Robotics. As you may know, we’ve soldered all of the Cubelets printed circuit boards to date using electric skillets. Thirty thousand tiny PCBs. This might shock an electrical engineer, but the method that Sparkfun published a few years ago works astonishingly well. Astonishingly well for a few thousand boards using a $20 piece of kitchen equipment, but it was time for us to upgrade. This enormous truck arrived first thing in the morning.
We rented a forklift for the day to lift our new twelve foot long reflow oven off the truck and bring it into our shop. Matt drove.
This beauty is an Electrovert Omniflo 5. We bought it used from a broker in Washington. It’s got 5 heating zones and is programmed with specific temperature curves to solder our Cubelets boards perfectly. Since the old skillet method worked so well, we weren’t really sure that we were going to need a real reflow oven, but it turned out that the boards that got burned or a little undercooked had a nefarious way of making their way further down the assembly process and requiring a lot of time to fix later. So we’re reflowing. 480 PCBs so far and they’re all beautiful! I never thought I’d be so excited about a piece of industrial equipment.
What better way is there to evaluate the reliability of a new Cubelet design iteration than by pitting it against its future comrades? It may seem strangely cynical, but on a practical level it saved an enormous amount of time designing and building a drive block torture test jig. And it’s modular to boot.
Cute recursion aside, it’s important business to make sure we’re sending out quality products to our customers, and an all-star design team is no substitute for some good ‘ol torture testing. What you see here is a multi-purpose jig that will repeatedly stall the drive wheels or provide resistance as the drive block runs through a simulated play session velocity profile – for hours and hours. Or days. And all the cubelets in the jig are essentially stock, besides the gutted friction-wheel mounting cubelet and the plug-in power cubelet to run tests overnight. We easily reprogrammed a knob block to output a velocity profile based on the knob position, and I hacked together a cam that snaps onto a rotate block to raise and lower the friction wheel. After the first few hours of listening to cubelets torture, it’s time for another project: build a sound isolation chamber out of Cubelets!
Last week Modular Robotics took Cubelets to the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas. Crazy! For four days our booth was mobbed by retailers, resellers, manufacturers, reporters, engineers, editors, starry-eyed startups and jaded serial entrepreneurs, videographers, bloggers, big-box buyers, business advisors, geeks, and venture capitalists. It was exhausting and fun. We were in the ‘Eureka Park’ section (thanks, National Science Foundation, for sponsoring us), surrounded by other new companies with emerging technologies, and we always had a crowd at our table playing with Cubelets. We did a lot of video interviews, answered a lot of questions, and we got a lot of free advice. And everyone seems to know a kid who needs Cubelets! Excelsior!
You might have seen our new Cubelets video. It blew up the internet a little bit last week and we were pretty excited to watch the real-time traffic and pre-orders roll in. The best part is reading and hearing the diverse feedback from the web.
One thing is clear: some Dutch people seem to have a little bit of self-hatred about their accents. Please don’t!. We have a lot of Dutch friends at Modular Robotics and we love speaking English with you. Your accent is melodic and sometimes totally hilarious. Did you notice that the voice is overdubbed? Nobody else noticed either.
We shot the video last Summer at Oli’s cabin in Conifer, Colorado. It was an epic day of fliming, Cubelets fiddling, and snacking on Edam. We’ve been editing and preparing it since then. I think the video is just straight awesome and I’m happy to share it with you. Thanks Evan, Justin, Todd, and our friends at BlorpCorp.
Last weekend I spoke at Paulo Blikstein’s FabLearn symposium at the Center for Educational Research at Stanford. Paulo has a well-equipped fabrication lab (Transformative Learning Technologies Lab) and a gaggle of great graduate students, and a mission to engage young people in fabrication: FabLab@School. FabLearn focused on integrating fabrication technologies into secondary education, attracting ~45 outstanding STEM educators from both formal (school) and informal (museums, after-school, and summer camps) sectors. My chum Mike Eisenberg (Craft Tech Lab, Colorado) argued for an approach to education that integrates making into children’s lives (an “anthropological approach”), rather than diagnosing and repairing cognitive deficiencies; Dale Dougherty (MAKE) spoke about efforts to build Maker communities, and Neil Gershenfeld (MIT Media Lab) laid out the Bits & Atoms vision and FabLab spinoffs. I talked about construction kits and showed Cubelets. Excellent cross-talk and optimism about how making things engages kids in learning. Kudos to Paulo for making it happen, and Modular Robotics was happy to be there.
I’ve just returned to the USA from a few days in Berlin for the Create Art and Technology 2011 conference. What an amazing city! Berlin is extremely vibrant; people are young and international and the city is packed with co-op hackerspaces and design studios. I flew overnight, arrived at 7am and promptly took myself on a ten-hour walking tour.
When the wall was torn down, a 1500 meter long section was left standing and turned into a gallery. Street artists have co-opted little sections of the wall and turned them into recollections of life in the GDR. But there is amazing street art everywhere! I kept going, stopped periodically in an interesting cafe for a cappuccino or four, and wandered past the Brandenburg Gate, squatter villages, the TV tower, and the Reichstag. The photo below is just of a regular old street with the U-Bahn train passing above — it’s pretty easy to get around Berlin at all hours.
The conference was a blast. It was the first of its kind and was put on by Anton Mezhiborskiy from Tinker Soup and Stefan Canditt from Formulor mostly as an excuse to bring a bunch of interesting people and projects together for a big ideation session. Grace Kim showed off some cool wearable electronics and Will Light showed off his library for the Monome by way of a quick DJ set. Onyx Ashanti played some BeatJazz and fun was had by all. I gave a talk on the evolution of Cubelets from idea to project to prototype to project and also led a couple of two-hour workshops on reprogramming with a Bluetooth Cubelet.
The conference was held at Planet Modulor, a city block-sized building that houses a variety of design studios, laser cutter shops, art galleries, an architectural model supply store, and even a kindergarten. When we encountered a problem with wi-fi at the conference venue, though, Jay invited us to hold the workshops a few blocks away at Open Design City, a co-working space with shop tools, a CNC machine in progress, and a variety of people hacking around on all sorts of projects. Berlin blew me away; it seemed that behind every door there was a group of makers diligently trying to change the world.
Are you in Boulder, CO? Interested in taking your Cubelets robots to the next level? Join us for a short workshop on building and programming Cubelets. This is sort of a practice workshop — we’re giving some demos all over the world in the next few months so we thought we’d try it out with our local friends first. It’ll be very experimental — experimental enough that our test Bluetooth Cubelets are are actually spray-painted since we don’t have light blue plastic yet. This workshop will include some finicky text-based programming, so it’s not for the little ones – I think that age 12 and up is about right.
When: Tuesday, Nov. 1, 2011, 5:00-7:00pm
Where: Modular Robotics, 1645 Canyon Blvd., Boulder, CO, USA (map)
Bring: A Windows laptop if you have one handy.
Please RSVP by commenting below. We only have room for the first ten people!
Cubelets and the Modular Robotics logo are trademarks of Modular Robotics LLC.
Some of our technology is licensed from Carnegie Mellon University.
Patents Pending, 2011.