Electric donkey

I’ve been amazed to see how quickly web video has transitioned from novelty to mainstream. So often now interesting links come along with video. Here’s the latest, an electric pack mule.

When I read that Boston Dynamics had made a stable robot quadruped, I was intrigued enough to follow the link and look at the clip. What I wasn’t prepared for was how disturbing it was going to be to see two pairs of skinny disembodied human legs nervously schlepping across a field. I’m anthropomorphizing here, but you’ll forgive me when you see the video. I imagine they put the little black leggings on to keep mud out of the leg machinery, but those tights are perfectly tuned to make the effect all the more disturbing. I kept looking for the people in the machine, the stunt midgets or whatever, that were really making this thing work. Inspiring robotics, but I would be creeped out if these guys were carrying my luggage. Would I have to give them a tip? Would I have to tip both of them? How long after we invent truly helpful robots before they turn into surly, intimidating tip hounds?

As if it weren’t weird enough to see this skinny-legged push-me pull-you donkey freak, the same company makes robotic cockroaches. Here’s a movie of one named RHex. There’s another one that climbs walls, called RiSE, and then there’s a doggy that does a dandy syncopated tap dance of a walk. Here’s the whole family. The movies are all good. The overall impression I get after looking at these videos is either A) these robots are sophisticated visitors from the future, or B) they are villains in a lame Half-Life mod.

Old NASA movies online

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When I was in high school, I spent one summer working a NASA Langley Research Center as part of something called the SHARP program (Summer High School Apprenticeship Research Program). Basically, I got a really cool minimum wage job for the summer working on experimental airplanes. For the most part, it was a makework program to encourage science-oriented students. I had a lot of free time. One of my favorite things to do during lunch was to go to the base library and check out official NASA films of various space missions, particularly the Apollo missions. I would take these large canisters of honest-to-goodness film and walk down the hall to the room with the projector, thread the film, and watch movies of guys doing zero-g tumbling in Skylab or some such thing. I loved it, and I knew how lucky I was to be in one of the few privileged places on Earth where it was so easy to look at movies like that.

Now NASA, the National Archives, and Google have teamed up to put these same movies on the web. Anybody with access to broadband Internet can watch what I watched back in 1982. Watching some of them again brings up several competing emotions. First is the same raw amazement I have always felt watching these stories of people flying to the moon in tin cans. Did that really happen? It’s still incredible. At the same time, I am nostalgic for that summer in Virginia long ago. And then there’s the amusement of what documentary films looked like 35 years ago. Finally there is the thrill that millions of people can do now what so few could do back then… watch, mouth agape, and be inspired by these crazy stories. Then again, maybe they’re all playing Grand Theft Auto instead.

Here’s the index so far: type:nasa – Google Video. I recommend the Apollo 8 mission. Debrief: Apollo 8 1969.

Design director’s commentary

From Bruce Nussbaum’s design blog I followed a link to metacool, a blog by IDEO “design thinker” Diego Rodriguez. The link that caught my eye was this one about the designer’s commentary for the Honda Ridgeline pickup, something analogous to the director’s commentary on a DVD. One of my peeves is people who talk about design design design in a very hand-wavy way. It’s an easily abused word. The way people really learn design is by doing it, and the very best way to learn it is to do it with people who are really good at it, so you can see how they approach and dissect problems. I think Rodriguez is on to something when he talks about a new generation of designers learning their craft by “the digital equivalent of an oral storytelling tradition.” I would sure listen to a podcast of designers describing how and why they made the decisions they did.