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Ivan Sutherland and his machina versatilis, then and now

Ivan Sutherland’s Trojan Cockroach tells the story of computer graphics, walking machines, and the origins of the technology underlying modern advances in robots. The protagonist of the exhibit, Ivan Sutherland, is often considered the father of computer graphics. An alum of Carnegie Tech in the 1950’s, Sutherland went on to develop one of the first human computer interfaces for graphics at MIT.



I curated an exhibit in a rare books archive, the Posner Center, framed around these old robotic parts as well as a number of  rare books from the 16th and 17th century detailing the foundations of technological innovations that led to robotics.  

I found the parts of an important robot he built in the 1980's, the Trojan Cockroach in the hallway of the basement of Wean at Carnegie Mellon in Pittsburgh. Images above show the parts on display.

This is a screen capture of an interactive Oculus based videogame made using diagrams from Ivans robot and the diagrams of other related walking machines.  A wireframe sim developed on the Unity game engine, it is made in a spare wireframe style that mimics the nature of Ivan's early graphics experiments and head mounted display.  The user controls the cockroach and can knock into and knock over other robots while touring the landscape.



Ivan's breakthrough MIT Thesis Sketchpad is in the first case, with two images, one I found in the archives of a young Ivan, another he independently sent me of himself with one of his early robots.  Also the godfather of virtual reality, this case focuses on Ivan's graphics work.

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This case focused on the Trojan Cockroach.


It features hydraulic cylinders from the original machine, a first printing of A Walking Robot by Ivan E. Sutherland, an issue of Scientific American depicting the robot, the first Robotics PhD from Marc Donner, several springs, and other odds and ends from  the machine. Images of the Trojan Cockroach in action, schematics, and a 3D printed miniature of the foot.  The black back and base are both Boston Dynamics terrain simulations for walking machine training experiments.


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This case has an early edition of Muybridge's Animal Locomotion: an Electro-Photographic Investigation of Connective Phases of Animal Movements, first printing of Karel Capek's R.U.R. Rossum's Universal Robots, an original Passive Walker mechanism designed by Tad McGreer, a first printing of Galvani's DeVibribus Electricitatus, 1791, Isaac Asimov's I, Robot first edition, multiple machine parts, mounted on a Boston Dynamics terrain simulator.

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A History of Walking Machines, a short historical survey, with multiple rare images of unique robotic experiments in legged locomotion and significant texts about legged locomotion.



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The story of this robot is part of a larger conversation about how to replicate biological skill and agility in machines. What should the brain do? What should the body do? The philosophy at CMU was that "intelligence" should be built into the body, to provide fast stable reflexes and simplify what the brain has to do. Sutherland used hydraulics to coordinate legs. Marc Raibert put physical springs to generate hopping behavior into robots at his "Leg Laboratory", which then led to the quadrupeds Big Dog and Spot at Boston Dynamics.


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The final case housed a "Little Dog" the micro-version of Boston Dynamic's Big Dog, next to Leibniz's Arata Eructordorium, an early scientific journal that depicts the first conceptual sketch of the modern calculator.  


In conjunction with the exhibition I hosted several events in partnership with the University archives and the Robotics Institute.  One event featured a joint lecture with Ivan Sutherland and Marc Raibert, another featured a reunion of many Leg Laboratory members and young students working on legged locomotion.  Four total events engaged the public in the show in a variety of ways, and attempted to bring together audiences from the arts and robotics in an intergenerational context.


About the soundtrack:  


"I Feel Love was and remains an astonishing achievement: a futuristic record that still sounds fantastic 35 years on. Within its modulations and pulses, it achieves the perfect state of grace that is the ambition of every dance record: it obliterates the tyranny of the clock – the everyday world of work, responsibility, money – and creates its own time, a moment of pleasure, ecstasy and motion that seems infinitely expandable, if not eternal."


-Jon Savage,


"I feel love" is slowed down 300% and paired with audio from historical documentaries from the 1960's about Ivan Sutherland's work on Sketchpad.  "I Feel Love" is a standard in gay discos and nightclubs and "the sound of the future".

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