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Animatronics grew out of the desire to break the limitations of animated films to bring characters into the real world.  Our goal is to create the illusion of life with electronic creatures of our own design to tell an original story.  Traditionally, animatronics has been the sole province of highly skilled artists and engineers working with complex mechanisms, found in theme parks. The exquisite entertainment robots they created often cost as much as a house, each.  But you can build your own simple animatronic shows using inexpensive and readily available materials.  We’ll write a story and then use paper and other household materials to construct characters that we’ll animate using simple micro-servos and Arduino.  Software tools will help us record voices and synchronize servo motions with the sound to create talking characters!

When you make an animatronics show, you are making an original one-of-a-kind show with you as writer and builder. What you write determines what you build!  As we take you through the steps, we’ll use a few of OUR characters, so you can see examples to get ideas for how to build YOUR own show using YOUR character.  We’ll talk a bit about the star of our video above, Phil the FlipPhone, and introduce a few other characters like Sam the Complaining Turtle, Percy, Geoffrey Giraffe, and Abe Lincoln Cat.  Be sure to post your own videos so all makers can enjoy them!

 

FortWorthProjectTeamCrop

Meet the Fort Worth project team! Seniors Courtney and Pooja originated animatronics at Trinity Valley School and Class of ’14 alum Zach has been on-site expert an animatronics enthusiast as we’ve taken our stuff on the road to New York and Seattle. Faculty advisors: Our fabulous creative writing leader, Luke Jacob, and project wrangler, Ginger Alford.

Meet the Seattle project team!  Tracy and Austin, high school interns at Microsoft Research in Redmond, WA, and, advisor to us all, the original visionary for animatronics, the seriously fun Paul Dietz of Microsoft Research.

See more at http://www.animatronicsworkshop.com and http://www.buildingsteam.org.

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Steps

Step #1: Create a character

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  • At the heart of every animatronic show is a great story. And what makes a great story is great characters. YOU are going to be the author of a one-character show.
  • For a story and characters to seem more realistic, an author must know the characters backwards and forwards, regardless if certain aspects of a character are never discussed in a story: a single childhood memory can change whether an older character acts out of savagery, kindness, or perhaps revenge. In order to facilitate the creation of a character, we suggest using a character you already know.
  • Here are four characters you already know well. Choose one or make your own!
    • Yourself
    • An inanimate object
    • A historical figure
    • A pet
  • Ask simple questions about the character you choose.
    • What is your character’s gender?
    • What is your character’s age?
    • What is your character’s occupation?
  • Then ask more complicated questions:
    • What was their favorite childhood memory?
    • What do they eat for breakfast?
    • What is their greatest fear?
    • What do they consider to be their best feature?
    • What do they believe in?
    These are just examples of questions you can ask to create a more lifelike character. There are hundreds more that can be asked to add complexity to your character!
  • WHAT ABOUT PHIL the FLIP PHONE? Phil is a male flip phone, about ten years old, who comes from a proud family of durable phones. When he was younger, he had many friends in the human world, thanks to his reliability. He once lived in an era where dependability was more important than looks, but things rapidly changed with the invention of the smart phone.

Step #2: Write a script

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  • Put your character in a situation. We used these ideas for our samples:
    • Make an animatronic version of your pet. What would your pet could tell you it wants/needs if it could talk to you?
    • Make an animatronic version of an historical figure. What would this historical figure want to take back to her/his own time if s/he visited the 21st century?
    • Make an animatronic version of an object that normally can’t move (but will be able to do so thanks to you). What would this object want to do if it were endowed with the power to move?
  • Imagine what your character would say and write a script. Read it out loud. We recommend a 30-60 second script.
  • As the graph here indicates, even the shortest text can still follow the basic rules of plot: a character's story grows out of a conflict and rises to a point of climax...even in just one minute of story telling!
  • WHAT ABOUT PHIL the FLIP PHONE? Phil resents these 'flashy' smart phones getting more attention, and decides it is time people took an upgrade to the past. The conflict driving Phil's story is that people put Phil aside for smart phones, and although he resents them for that, Phil wants people to use him again.

Step #3: Construct your character

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  • Once you have decided on a character, consider what parts you want to move. Choose stiff paper or lightweight cardboard to use to construct separate moving pieces.
  • Geoffrey Giraffe is designed with 2 servos, one to move his neck up and down and one to move his tail.
  • Your servo comes with a variety of little plastic pieces that snap right onto the servo horn. Choose one that will best attach to the paper piece that you want to move.
  • Attach a servo to each piece that will move using duct or masking tape. Think of each servo as a joint. It's easy to see this with this paper bunny.
  • TIP: Each servo can rotate up to 180 degrees. You will need to tape your servo to the paper in a way that makes it move the way you want. A servo tester is handy for this.
  • WHAT ABOUT PHIL the FLIP PHONE? Phil uses one servo to operate. The body of the servo is taped to the back side of the phone, and the head is attached to a flap from the front of the phone. On the other side, a needle acts a a pendulum to keep the phone connected.

Step #4: Set up software tools

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  • Sound recording software. We need to create a WAV audio file (16 bit PCM)f. Audacity is an open source sound editing software package that works well for this. Download and install Audacity for your computer from http://audacity.sourceforge.net.
  • Servo motion recording and show control software. Visual Show Automation(VSA) is a robotics show control software package for Windows platforms. Thanks to Brookshire Software for setting up a special temporary version for no cost to makers for use during MakerCamp Week 6!
  • Download this special makercamp version of Visual Show Automation Pro from http://www.brookshiresoftware.com/maker2014.
    • username: test
    • password: test
    You'll need to enter your e-mail to get a registration code that you'll need to run VSA.
  • When you start VSA and are prompted for registration information, enter this:
    • username: maker@2014
    • code: 9YK5-87Z6-A6WN-M7NM-963J-C76Y-ZAPR
  • Servo control simulator software for the Arduino that lets it talk to Visual Show Automation needs to be running on your Arduino. If you already have the Arduino IDE environment loaded on your computer and know how to upload code to your Arduino, just cut and past the code below. It's ready to upload. (If you don't have this, time to pause and learn the basics of the Arduino IDE from http://www.arduino.cc)
  • Due to issues beyond our control we cannot properly embed the code. Please go here to view it: https://gist.github.com/zerotri/7833cb46d5660ecadd86
  • See http://www.buildingstream.org for more information on show control software for all platforms.

Step #5: Make a voice recording

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  • Audacity is an open source sound editing software that you can use to record your script. First record your normal voice, then modify it to fit your character!
  • You'll need a microphone. You can use one built into your computer. If you have USB headset microphones, use those because this will cut down on background noise.
  • Maximize your window so you can see all of Audacity’s features, and on the right you will see a microphone volume adjustment tool. Be sure your microphone volume is at its loudest before recording by moving the tab all the way at the “+” sign. Then use the record and stop buttons for recording your normal voice.
  • Turn your voice into a character voice by changing pitch. Go to to “Effect” at the top left of the page, then click “Change Pitch…” Move the tab at the bottom of the box to change the percentage of the pitch. You can click “Preview” to hear the pitch changed or “Ok” to save the new audio. To return audio back to original pitch, type in “0.00” into Percent change slot.
  • Choose File > Export… (shortcut: Ctrl + Shift+ E). Then click on the box that says “Save as type:”. You are going to select “WAV”, then save.
  • Remember where your saved your WAV file. You'll need it when you record motion!
  • WHAT ABOUT PHIL the FLIP PHONE? Phil's voice is actually a female voice recording that was modified by sliding the pitch shift to the left to lower the voice by about 15.00% - all using Audacity. The recording was then exported to a WAV file.

Step #6: Wire it all up

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  • Attach the servo extender to the servo. This gives you a little more room as you build. Note how you align the wires. We assume you aligned black with ground, red with power and white with signal.
  • Attach each servo to the Arduino using additional hookup wire.
    • Attach signal line (white) to digital pins 2 and 3.
    • Attach power lines (red) to the 5V pin.
    • Attach ground line (black) to GND .
  • If using two servos, you should use a bread board to split the 5V power. Connect the 5V pin to any row on the breadboard, and connect the red wires of the servos to the same row on the board.
  • Attach the Arduino to the computer using the USB, and upload the code provided in step 4.
  • Sometimes plugging in the Arduino before wiring up the servos can cause a disconnect problem. Use the battery pack as an external power supply to avoid this.

Step #7: Record servo motion tracks

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  • To complete the show, you need to create and save a "recording" of how you want your servo(s) to move. This depends on the show of course, but there are two ways:
    • Move in synch with the sound (using Wave Motion Analysis in VSA)
    • Move according to how you manually set controls using GUI sliders or using game controller if you have one.
    But first, you have to configure things so that VSA can communicate with the Arduino.
  • Configure VSA: Open VSA and set things up to communicate with the Arduino. The first column on the left says track. This corresponds with the pin number that the servo is attached to on your Arduino. Make sure that the pins that you are using are checked off. The next column says name. Here you can name the pin number to make it easier to animate. The next column is Type. Make sure each row says MiniSSC Servo. (Be sure you uploaded the Arduino code hat simulates the servo controller. VSA will not talk to the Arduino without that.) The next column is Port. Click on the tab and select the COM port associated with your Arduino.
  • Move in synch with WAV sound file: From the menu, select Tools, then WaveMotion Analysis (Note: You must have at least one imported audio file in order to complete this process.) A dialog box will display these options From the menu, select Tools, then Import the audiofile you created with Audacity. Settings Select the Audio Tab To add a new audio file, click "Add" and then click on the "..." button to search for a file. (Note: VSA will only accept files that are in the .wav (preferred) or .mp3 format)
  • Automatically synchronize your servo to move with the sound track. From the menu, select Tools, then WaveMotion Analysis (Note: You must have at least one imported audio file in order to complete this process.) A dialog box will display these options Track: Choose the track for which events are to be created. (Note: Select the device or servo to which you wish to synchronize the wave file)
  • Manually control your servo with a GUI slider: You can choose any track to control manually. Click anywhere in the track and drag the mouse to the right to create an event box. An event box is a "sweep" movement of the servo between two points in one direction. Click on the event box to control the sweep using a dial. Create a series of event boxes to create a sequence of complex motions to control your second servo throughout the show.
  • RECOMMENDED: Visual Show Automation has handy way to record joystick motion directly from a USB game controller. It's faster, easier, and more fun than the manual controls! If you have one of these, here's how you use it:
    • On the right side bar click the record button and a menu will pop up. Select the “Add” button to add a device to record.
    • Double click the track name and select the track that you want to record movements on.
    • Select the Joystick device and select the axis of motion to associate with the track.
    • Select Ok and move the joystick.
    • Note that an event must have been created or a sound file loaded for another track to set the duration of the recording.

Step #8: INSPIRATION: Sam the Complaining Turtle

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  • Sam the Turtle lives in a glass box and is slightly neglected by his owner. He now can speak.
  • To build Sam, we wanted his big turtlehead to have a mouth that moved. We used a styrofoam ball cut in half and used the servo to open and close his mouth. We dug a hole into one of the Styrofoam pieces and placed the servo in this hole and secured with duct tape.
  • We used wire threaded through one of the holes in the servo arm piece. We shoved the wire into the other Styrofoam half and secured it tightly.
  • The body is made of two paper bowls, which are attached at the rims with the Arduino placed inside. We cut holes in the bowls for the wires right where the head meets the shell.

Step #9: INSPIRATION: Abe Lincoln Cat

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  • Abe Lincoln cat rages against the popular culture idea that dogs and cats don't get along.
  • Two servos are used to make Abe Lincoln Cat. One servo moves his beard as he talks. This servo motion was programmed using the Wave Motion Analysis tool in VSA. The other servo moves his head. This servo motion was programmed using the Capture Event option in VSA with a USB joystick.

Step #10: INSPIRATION: Percy the Cat

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  • Percy the Cat has always had a deep desire for fish, but has been unable to obtain it despite trying everything she can think of. She now has discovered she has an audience to listen to her woes.
  • Percy is made of felt! One servo is used to attach her head to her body and to move her head as she speaks.

Step #11: INSPIRATION: Phil the Flip Phone

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  • Phil once lived in an era where dependability was more important than looks, but things rapidly changed with the invention of the smart phone.
  • Phil resents these 'flashy' smart phones getting more attention, and decides it is time people took an upgrade to the past.
  • We used a pin as a hinge to hold the front flap over his "screen" and used the servo to open and close the flap. We used Wave Motion Analysis in VSA to synchronize the servo to the audio file to make him talk.

Step #12: Enjoy the show!

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  • Now that your show is ready to play, it’s time to add those finishing touches. You can add decoration to the set your character is in. Good speakers are nice.
  • VSA show has Play, Pause, and Stop Show buttons. You can even choose Loop Play to repeat the show over and over.
  • The great thing about a show like this is that you can play it over and over again. Of course, how often may depend on how well you made your paper mechanisms.
  • Post a video and tell us about it!

Ginger Alford

Ginger is a career computer scientist now working as educator and maker. Employed jointly by Trinity Valley School and the Fort Worth Museum of Science and History, she works inter-organizationally to develop computer science education programs.


Trinity Valley School Animatronics

Trinity Valley School Animatronics

Meet the Fort Worth team! Seniors Courtney and Pooja originated animatronics at Trinity Valley School (TVS) and Class of ’14 alum Zach has been on-site expert an animatronics enthusiast as we’ve taken our stuff on the road to New York and Seattle. Luke Jacob and Ginger Alford are faculty advisers.

With a passion for creative narrative, TVS senior Courtney wrote the original Percy script and prepared and presented the writing portion of an animatronics workshop at Microsoft Research in June 2014. She also plays field hockey and plans to major in engineering in college next year.

TVS Senior Pooja built the original Percy the Cat using puppets and aluminum that was part of our first major show: The Great Escape. She traveled to World MakerFaire New York in 2013 to setup and demo that show, where it received an Editor’s Choice Blue Ribbon. A serious dancer, Pooja plans to major in engineering next year.

TVS graduate Zach has been the goto guy and animatronics ambassador for the 2013/2014 year. He can be found regularly spreading animatronics cheer at the Fort Worth Museum of Science and History, first as a high school intern and currently as staff. He will be majoring in engineering at Tulane this fall.

Luke Jacob is Dean of Writing an Curriculum at TVS where he teaches creative writing. He has one class rule: NO CATS!

Ginger Alford is computer science faculty at TVS and strategic project director at Fort Worth Museum of Science and History. She has 2 actual cats.


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