CMU spinoff's toys teach technology by making it fun


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An imagination geared toward making robots from cardboard boxes can quickly fade once the lure of playtime is replaced with a fear of science and technology learning.

But a team of Carnegie Mellon University researchers are betting that a toy designed to bring cardboard friends to life could be the tool that makes creating technology just another part of play.

The Hummingbird -- a kit featuring electronic sensors, motors and everything else required to turn a craft project into a robot -- was unrolled for commercial sale in July after six years of research. The kit, which was developed through CMU's CREATE Lab, also features simple programming software that allows students who are just learning the ins and outs of technology to customize their robots with distinct sounds, movements and other defining features. The kits are being sold for $199 through a CMU spinoff company, BirdBrain Technologies.

"We want students to become inventors of technology rather than users of technology," said Illah Nourbakhsh, CMU robotics professor who leads CREATE Lab, in a press release. "Hummingbird feeds a student's natural curiosity about technology by enabling her to incorporate robotics into something she is making that is meaningful or useful."

Initially created for CREATE Lab's Arts & Bots program -- an initiative to encourage interest in technology among middle school students -- Hummingbird has been through several iterations before reaching its current stage, said CREATE Lab senior research associate Emily Hamner.

The original idea was to create robots that express emotions and feelings to draw interest from young girls. The idea was that girls would keep a diary and the robot would act out feelings expressed in their entries.

After a series of workshops with girls at the Sarah Heinz House, the idea of sharing diary entries was soundly dismissed, although everyone seemed excited by the notion of an emotive robot.

"They liked that a robot could be expressive and tell stories. That's much different from a robot that launches Ping-Pong balls," Ms. Hamner said.

With emotional expression, dancing and general flexibility in movement being some of the key requests from students, CREATE Lab narrowed down what types of tools and equipment could be used to help students create the robots of their desires.

BirdBrain CEO and CREATE Lab alumnus Tom Lauwers said each kit contains DC motors and a master controller to manage movement but also features motion-detecting sensors and servos to allow for specific ranges of movement (raised arms or eyebrows), sound detectors and color-changing LED lights, which are typically used to change eye color.

"Everyone knows red eyes means you're angry," Mr. Lauwers said.

Early tests with students at St. Louise de Marillac Catholic School in Upper St. Clair and The Ellis School in Shadyside, which both participate in the Arts & Bots program, demonstrated a range of ideas that surprised researchers and instructors.

Human anatomy and physiology students at The Ellis School used the kit to build a model of the human arm using flexible plastics and servos that moved elbow and wrist joints.

"A lot of the girls said it helped them see where muscles attached," said teacher Terry Richards in a press release. "They really had to think about where the muscles could attach on their models. Even in high school students aren't usually introduced to this technology unless they're on the robotics team."

Zee Poerio, a teacher at St. Louise de Marillac, said building a replica of a mythical Greek monster engaged students in ancient studies in a way that extended even beyond the school year. The Gorgon coin featured tri-color LEDs to create glowing eyes that change from blue to red, distance sensors that recognized when students were near, and a servo that wagged the monster's tongue. Students only programmed the coin to make a roaring sound in response to certain actions this year, but were offering suggestions to have it tell the myth of Medusa next year.

Outside the classroom, she said students began noticing the use of electronic sensors in devices all around them.

"One student made the observation about the distance sensor on the automatic soap dispenser in the restroom and came to the conclusion that it needed to be adjusted to a shorter distance so soap wouldn't be wasted. A younger student had an "aha" moment after activating the distance sensor on the Gorgon robot and said, 'Now I know how those sliding glass doors magically open when you walk up to them or when you go into a store, there's a distance sensor in there, right?' " she said in an email.

In addition to schools and organizations around the city, Hummingbird kits are being used at Marshall University in West Virginia and in programs in Brazil, the United Kingdom and South Africa.

If the response from early testers is an indication of the future, the kits could take off in a big way.

"At the end of the school year I polled students about what they wanted to learn more about next year, [and] more robots was a popular response from boys and girls at all levels," Ms. Poerio said.

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Deborah M. Todd: dtodd@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1652.


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