Maker Faire Bay Area: TE+ND Rover Interview

Craft & Design Robotics
TE+ND Rover

TE+ND Rover

As we continue to countdown to Maker Faire Bay Area, taking place on May 19 and 20 at the San Mateo Fairgrounds, we’re continually amazed by the variety of projects that will be on display. Whatever stripe of maker you are, this is one event you will not want to miss. Truly the greatest and biggest show and tell on Earth. Last week, we got an inside glimpse into the Zevrino, and Arduino-powered cat feeder made by a father-daughter team. This week, we speak with artist and project collaborator Marnia Johnston, who will be bringing a set of three TE+ND Rovers, which are mobile, interactive, robotic plant-fostering environments.

1. Tell us about the TE+ND Rover project. What inspired you to envision it and what was the development process?
The rover project combines several things that I’m interested in — native habitat survival, robotics, and art — in one amazing package. I’ve wanted to build this garden-tending robot for some time but didn’t have the facilities or know how, so I applied for and received the Visions from the New California Award from the Alliance of Artist Communities. The award is a one-month residency at the Exploratorium and a grant from the James Irvine foundation. I will start my residency this June but, with the help of fabricator and Linux guru Corey McGuire, will have a working model on view for Maker Faire in May.

The design of the robot is based on Theo Jansen’s Strandbeests and the Mars rovers. Space exploration had a lot of influence in designing the project. I think of the TE+ND Rovers as terra rovers, exploring the Earth for the best place to grow native California habitat. Working with Corey, the rover has been modeled, and animations of the walking elements can be seen on

I’m currently working on designing the hydroponic growing platform on top of the walking base. Most traditional hydroponics use an inert medium like gravel for root development. Substrates like that won’t work on a walking rover because the gravel would roll around and destroy the roots when the rover is on anything but a flat surface. I’m creating a stable ceramic sponge-like material that will hydrate without the need for traditional substrates. I’ll show examples of the ceramic sponge at this year’s Maker Faire.

2. How do audience members become participants in this project?
Bystanders become participants by assisting the rovers in finding sunlight and water for their gardens, helping the rovers to navigate, and providing resources they need to keep their gardens healthy. Because the robots navigate using obstacle-avoidance technology, bystanders can “herd” them by standing in their way to cause them to move in a particular direction, and thereby encourage them to travel toward resources beyond the range of the robots’ sensors. There will also be a Quick Response code on a plaque on the rover that will direct community members to more information about the project, topic discussions on native ecology, and troubleshooting interactions with the rovers. The website that the QR code directs participants to will have pictures of the plants grown on the platform and descriptions of how and where they grow. In helping the rovers, participants learn about cultivating native California habitat and stretch the limits of human-robotic empathy and engagement.

TE+ND Rover

3. At Maker Faire Bay Area 2008, you exhibited another collaborative project called SWARM. Tell us about that experience. How was SWARM received?
SWARM consists of a herd of six semi-autonomous robots that have their own on-board light, sound, and navigational systems and have their own flocking or “swarming” behavior. As the spherical robots rolled around the grass at the 2008 Maker Faire, children chased after them and tried to corral them, yelling, screaming, and having a great time. Fairgoers got to “drive” the orbs using remote controls and experienced the on-board light and sound elements. The orbs made the most impact at dusk when the light system could really shine. Overall, we had a great time and fairgoers got to experience an amazing project created by a fabulous team of dedicated, talented artists.

4. Having participated previously, what is it about Maker Faire that motivated you to participate as a maker again?
To be honest, I am participating at Maker Faire because I want to talk to people about my project and do a test run. When you design a project like this, you always plan out how it will be received and interpreted. But you never really know if what you plan is what you’ll get. Maker Faire is a great way to test out all the flaws and get audience feedback. The audience gets to help improve the project, and I get to talk to intelligent, amazing people, many of whom have garage projects of their own they are trying to realize.

I love talking to people at Maker Faire because they are so interesting and they are always working on or developing something fascinating. I love hearing about what they are up to.

5. Tell us about yourself. How did you get started making things and who are your inspirations?
I guess like most people at Maker Faire, I’ve always tinkered and made things. I usually start with drawings or a plan and move on to a working model. I’ve always worked that way, even as a kid. As I grew up and my ideas got larger, I looked for other people to make things and collaborate with.

The people I look to are artists like Theo Jansen and George Gessert. George is an amazing artist who is interested in plant aesthetics and ways that human aesthetic preferences (hybridizing plants in search of beauty) affect evolution. I could gush about George all day. I also read a lot of Stephen Jay Gould, Donna Haraway, Lewis Thomas, and other authors who write about contemporary issues in science. Their ideas usually seep their way into my work as well.

6. Your bio describes you as an “interdisciplinary instigator collaborating with engineers, biologists, programmers and tinkerers.” As an artist, what do you look for in project collaborators?
The first thing I look for is enthusiasm. On a big project full of frustrations and late nights, the excitement of the end result is what is going to help sustain us. I also look for compatibility and ask these questions: will our personality types work together? Can we schedule enough time together to work on the project consistently? What skill sets are needed for this project?

The most important part of collaborating is to have fun. If the crew is having a good time, we will be more likely to meet and work together to finish the piece. Also, the end product reflects that buoyant interaction, and the viewers will experience it through the work.

[Check out the TE+ND Rover Timing Gears With Legs animation by Corey McGuire below.]

YouTube player

7. What’s the most important thing you’ve learned about collaborating with folks across varied disciplines?
Patience. Everything good takes time. Learn to compromise. There are a million ways to make something, and your way isn’t always the best, safest, easiest, or awesomest way to do it, so listen to each other and be open minded. I’ve seen so much new knowledge come out of the cross pollination between disciplines. The corollary knowledge is so exciting.

8. What new idea has inspired you most recently?
I’m really interested in the ceramic sponge for the growing platform. If it all works out, it has a lot of applications. I’ll keep you posted.

9. What is your favorite tool and/or medium?
I like to get dirty, and my favorite medium is clay. I can spend all day and night at the ceramics studio throwing on the wheel, hand-building forms, and firing kilns. Most of my work incorporates ceramics in some way.

10. What advice would you give to young makers just getting started?
Just go for it. Don’t hesitate. You could spend a lifetime second guessing yourself and your ideas.

Next, set aside time to work. Don’t let the laundry, that TV show, or that computer game steal time away from you and your project. And work on it every week because progress feels good, and when you feel good, you’re more likely to work on it and complete it.

Also, talk about what you’re working on with friends, share it on your blog, post it on Pinterest. I spend hours looking for awesome maker projects and always love hearing about new projects as they are made. They inspire me to start something new or get off my butt and finish some cool piece. It’s the synergy of being a maker.

Thanks Marnia! Looking forward to meeting and interacting with the rovers!

Folks, for all the info you need to come join us at the Faire, including how to buy early bird discount tickets, head over to the Maker Faire Bay Area site. Hope to see you there!

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I'm a word nerd who loves to geek out on how emerging technology affects the lexicon. I was an editor on the first 40 volumes of MAKE, and I love shining light on the incredible makers in our community. In particular, covering art is my passion — after all, art is the first thing most of us ever made. When not fawning over perfect word choices, I can be found on the nearest mountain, looking for untouched powder fields and ideal alpine lakes.

Contact me at or via @snowgoli.

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