Russell the Electric Giraffe is perhaps the most iconic project at Maker Faire Bay Area, having made an appearance every single year, since the first one ever in 2006. He is loved by many and has been profiled, filmed (below), and even interviewed.
Last year at the Faire, my friend Zolie (age 8, pictured above) and I were hanging out with Russell when she told me that she misses Russell when she doesn’t see him. I have to agree. For real. Zolie has also been at every Maker Faire Bay Area (her parents Jon and Kyrsten are the amazing makers of the Serpent Twins and many other projects) and has grown up seeing Russell evolve and grow every year. She and I are both happy to have a friend
who happens to be a 16-foot robotic giraffe.
If you’ve never met Russell (or if you miss him like we do), come out to Maker Faire Bay Area this year, taking place on May 17 and 18 at the San Mateo Fairgrounds, and make a new friend. I chatted with Russell’s maker, Lindsay Lawlor, to take a trip down memory lane and look at the changes Russell has been through over the years. Here’s what he shared.
Russell’s very first public appearance outside of Burning Man was in late 2005 at an event called “Robonexus” at the San Jose Convention Center. At this stage, Russell is very plain and had yet to be even called “Russell” at this point. The reaction from the school groups that were brought in to see the show was nothing short of staggering. I had no idea what kind of appeal Russell had with kids until I did this show, and suffice to say, it was the kickoff to a whole new idea of what I might do with the giraffe in the future.
This was a pivotal moment in his life, and he might have gone on to simply rusting in the backyard and being taken only to Burning Man once a year and never developed beyond something that was just a very cool art car for us to tool around on out there! I believe it was this show that somehow attracted interest from Sherry Huss or Dale Dougherty, and in fact, Dale may have been at this show — I don’t remember. But shortly after I did this show, I got a call from Maker Faire asking me to attend.
Here is Russell in his very first appearance at Maker Faire. God, this brings back memories! Russell’s head has barely any electronics in it still, and he cannot steer yet either. All he could do was walk forward and backward in a straight line. In spite of all that, the crowds were visibly amazed that someone was brave enough to tackle the task of making a four-legged walking machine that big and pulling it off. I immediately knew that Russell had found a new home and a new direction in life. I was so delighted because I really thought he would only be seen once a year in the desert — a desert that was slowly destroying him with the salt-laden dust that was eroding him as fast as I could repair him! At this show, the MythBusters also showed up and rode him too! Very few pics exist of that, but they are out there, somewhere.
Somewhere in 2006, this image was snapped of Russell and I by a good friend who did a lot of the original build pictures of the giraffe. I can’t say enough about how important this image is, showing the slowly building relationship I was making with this mechanical beast. He had completed at least two appearances at Burning Man and one at Maker Faire at this point, and here I am, sitting with him in the dark, wondering where this amazing thing I had built was going to take me.
Here is Russell at Maker Faire in 2007. He can steer but his propulsion system was still based on his ability to walk only. The big change was the addition of the MAKE Controller, which Maker Faire had introduced early that year, so we used it to promote the product as Russell’s very first brain. You can easily see the controller in his forehead, behind the sensors the kid is reaching up to touch. I love this picture because it shows that kids really wanted to pet him.
It was during this show that my programmer, Russell Pinnington, suddenly found his name being used when I was interviewed by Good Morning America. The guy asked me what name the robot had, and in a fit of not wanting to use the usual name of “you piece of sh*t” (which he was often called when he was exploding or blowing up his control system) and in a panic I said, “Russell!” Well, the name stuck, much to the real Russell’s eternal embarrassment!
Here is Russell and Russell, at Maker Faire 2008. At this point, the Faire proved irresistible to the real Russell and he flew out from the U.K. to be with me for the show. By this time he was firmly establishing himself as my official programmer. And it shows. Up high you can make out the MicroChip decals on the giraffe’s oil tank, the company having sent us a whole box of their microcontrollers for us to use in our new control system we were developing. Russell and I can be seen riding on the back of the giraffe as we powered our way with his all-new control system into the main lawn area. Everyone just parted in a sea of astounded faces. Russell was now starting to establish himself as a fixture of Maker Faire (as evidenced by just how many images I was able to find with a quick search of the net!).
Then, in June of 2008, I was thinking about the giraffe: what new color to paint him, how to add new things to him, would I could I do a complete teardown and rebuild? The thoughts were terrifying. Could I pull it off and have him ready in time? It would also mean the end of him going to Burning Man, something I was not so ready to think about. He has a huge following there. He was built for the event in the first place!
But then one day, I was sitting on the roof, it was sunset, and I was looking down on the giraffe, drinking beer, and enjoying the evening. And as the sun set, the color in the sky changed to a brilliant orange. I looked down at the giraffe, climbed down and got my camera, then back up again, and took the very last pictures anyone ever saw of the white giraffe again. I knew my mind was made up. He would transform into the color of that sunset. “Pearl Sunset Orange,” in fact, and I could see what he looked like in my mind’s eye before I cut the first pieces of him apart. But in a matter of weeks, Russell was exploded and torn apart all over the yard. My programmer, Russell, was both excited and horrified. What would happen? Would I lose interest? Would some other fate come along and prevent reassembly?
OK, so now it’s 2009. The giraffe underwent a complete teardown and rebuild, along with an all new trailer purchased just for him to be towed around on. I spent $16,000 on that rebuild! We had an all-new giraffe, now officially named “The Electric Giraffe Project” — complete with stunning T-shirts that everyone wanted! I’m still stunned by that! My grandmother thought I was crazy, although now she is softening her tune in seeing me on the news all the time. Hah! And so the Giraffe appeared in 2009, totally new and sparkling.
And though he’s looked largely unchanged ever since, there’s a lot going on in the background that is not readily seen. It mostly involves work on his LED spots and his control systems, his touch system, and speech module. And though he’s said mostly the same things since 2009, we’re developing new things all the time for him to say and react to. Most of the delay in all this has been financial, with the meltdown of the economy and a failed relationship taking a heavy toll on my ability to move forward with advancements on the project.
Russell (the programmer) was also unable to attend the past couple of years, further hampering my ability to show new things at Maker Faire in 2011 and 2012. But we still put on a good show and everyone is always happy to see us. I get NO shortage of parents saying, “Oh thank you for being here! The kids will not stop talking about the giraffe and now we’ll finally get some peace!” And there’s no shortage of kids coming up to tell me that this is their favorite thing at the Maker Faire. It’s just a nonstop flood of compliments at every show.
Russell is coming out to the Faire this year! And so with that we’re going to knock your socks off in the dark room of Fiesta Hall. Computer-controlled hexagon spots will be on him this time around and we’re going to take FULL advantage of the dark room and will spend time walking around inside and giving a lot of demonstrations! We still like going outdoors and plan on doing so once or twice day but inside the big dark room, Russell can really show off his coloring!
And as for what kids like most? Well, that really boils down to interaction. The giraffe is something that, from the very start, was designed to be touched, not seen from a distance, not explained or presented to anyone, kids or adults alike. And while I do talk about the machine and what he can do, I let them get their own individual experience from touching and seeing this machine up close. And the fact that it looks like an animal they can identify with is double bonus in that regard. They are not afraid of it, mostly, and find that being able to touch it makes them a part of it.
Many young kids (ages 2-8) might not really understanding what robotics and electronics are, but if they get to touch and feel it, they feel so much more comfortable with it. Their level of fascination goes way up because until they are reading and understanding things on their own, they are learn the most through tactile interaction. They feel a part of it, not just a spectator.
And most of all? They LOVE to braid his tail. I was also taken by surprise by this. At the last school show I did, kids were almost fighting over the privilege to be allowed to braid his tail like a horse’s would be! I said “he likes his tail to be braided” after I noticed this happening off and on, and it caused an explosion of interest all over again after they got through petting his nose and talking to him.
So, that’s part of the real reward everyone feels. I don’t keep Russell behind a barrier and show him to you. I let him show you who he is.
Photo by Mark McCarthy