Like everybody else onthe planet, I'm really sick of reality shows.
At the same time, there are a lot of engineers today working hard to make fake stuff seem real. In fact, we just did a story on Playmates' new Baby Bright Eyes doll (DN 04.21.03). Although the eyeballs themselves are disconcertedly oversized, engineers focused their efforts on making the eye movements look real. Now thanks to the smooth motion of shape memory alloy actuators, the doll blinks, squints, and bats her eyelashes convincingly.
I can only imagine what's coming next.
Similarly, Universal Studios emphasizes the life-like qualify of its animatronic dinosaurs at its Islands of Adventure theme park. An incredible amount of engineering effort went into achieving a high degree of dino-realism—just ask any fluid power engineer how hard it is to manage large motions with high gains. Universal is so confident of its engineering of a Triceratops that they even let visitors get up close to it. But do you honestly think anyone over the age of, say, two thinks it's the genuine thing?
Perhaps instead of trying to make the dinosaurs seem like the real deal (I mean, fossil records aside, who really knows exactly what these prehistoric creatures were like?), Universal should take the skins off and showcase the incredible engineering behind relatively simple animatronic motions.
I think Hagen Schempf, a robotics researcher at Carnegie Mellon's Robotics Institute (DN B.M.O.C. 06.02.03), has it right: Never a fan of Star Wars or Asimov's Robot books, he thinks robots should look like, well, like the machines that they are. And he thinks the designs should be as simple and reliable as possible.
"It's relatively easy to make a complex machine. What's hard is to make the appropriate trade-offs and develop a simple, low-cost machine with a high degree of utility," he says. So don't expect any inventions like the robotic babysitter featured in the FLASH section of this issue (page 30) out of Schempf. His robots are industrial-looking and perform mundane and sometimes hazardous tasks like removing asbestos from pipes.
I'm betting marketing people would probably not get along with Hagen. But just imagine the unique message they'd have to offer: A low-cost, reliable product that does what it's supposed to do. Really.