Vol. 27 Issue 4 Reviews
Kobe DSP Off Summer School 2003: Robots and Music

Xebec Hall, Kobe, Japan, 18-23 March 2003

Reviewed by Mark Polishook
Ellensburg, Washington, USA

The DSP Off Summer School in Kobe, Japan, devoted its fifth annual workshop to the theme of Robots and Music. The idea of the workshop, with faculty and organizers that included Masayuki Akamatsu, Nobuyasu Sakonda, Suguro Goto, and Fuminori Yamasaki, and sponsors such as the Xs Research Corp., Boenig und Kallenbach oHG, Fischertechnik, Megafusion, Sound & Recording Magazine, the NOMOTO Corp, and The Institute of Advanced Media Arts and Sciences (www.iamas.ac.jp), was that participants would learn fundamental patching and programming techniques in Max/MSP/Jitter that could then be used to control robots.

The faculty, with their extensive background in new media arts, organized the participants, whose expertise included software and hardware engineering, visual arts, and music composition, into teams of three or four individuals. The idea was that each group of participants could choose to build either a mobile robot or a robotic arm from a Fischertechnik kit (www.fischertechnik.de). The kits, which Fischertechnik produces to provide an introduction to robotics, are simple in design. They consist of several hundred small plastic parts, a few motors, and a USB interface.

A central item that brought the many interdisciplinary threads and interests of the workshop faculty and participants together was a Max object that Mr. Akamatsu coded specifically for the workshop and which he called aka.serviceusb; Macintosh OS 9 and OS X versions are available on the World Wide Web (bkohg.com/service.html). This object made it possible for workshop participants to connect their Max/MSP/Jitter patches to the Fischertechnik robots. The object can send commands to turn the motors of the robots on and off and it can receive data acquired from the simple light and touch sensors with which the robots are equipped. This capability allowed workshop faculty and/or participants to use the line-following and edge/object-detection behaviors of the Fischertechnik robots for musical applications.

Mr. Sakonda, for example, exhibited a mobile robot that controlled an MSP patch through data acquired from lines on a piece of paper over which it drove. Mr. Goto demonstrated a patch in which instructions were sent to a robot from the same point of control used to manipulate a synthesis process in MSP. The group in which I worked devised a Jitter patch that let our robot, to which we attached a webcam, follow colored objects; when Jitter detected each new object, it then triggered a synthesis process in MSP.

To create context for robotic music making, and to demonstrate more fully the artistic possibilities of robots, Mr. Akamatsu, Mr. Sakonda, and Mr. Goto collaborated for several months prior to the March workshop with Mr. Yamasaki, who is well-known in Japan as the creator of the Pino humanoid robot (www.symbio.jst.go.jp/~yamasaki/index.html). Together, they created five robots—four of which were robotic arms—for which Mr. Akamatsu, Mr. Sakonda, and Mr. Goto wrote compositions in Max.

The sight of the robotic arms on the Xebec Hall concert stage for the March 18 installation that opened the workshop was stunning. An arm on the far left played a gong and another arm located a little to its right, played a bass drum. Continuing from left to right across the stage, a third robot consisted of four arms divided into pairs such that two arms played a woodblock and two rolled on a snare drum. A fourth robot located towards the right side of the stage played a cymbal (see Figure 1). A fifth robot mounted even further to the right and slightly set back on the stage had a different design; it consisted of pipes formed into a rectangular base station on top of which was a motor that attached to two sock-like pieces of rubber. The socks, when spun by the robot’s motor, created an appealing whirring sound.

The audience, which was mostly seated at the opening of the installation, eventually moved out of its seats to examine the robots more closely. It was fascinating to see how the robots, which neither required nor expected the etiquette that humans would otherwise be accorded, shaped the behavior of the audience. Clearly, they posed fascinating questions: Were the robots performers on a concert stage? Or were they kinetic sculptures in an installation space? What are the differences between a performer, a machine, an intelligent machine, and a kinetic sculpture? In what ways do robots affirm the common practice of the concert stage? In what ways do robots subvert such practice? Do robots create and enhance community and collaboration among humans who work with and through the rituals of the concert stage? Or, by taking on functions that previously were the domain only of humans, do robots subvert the aura of the concert stage?

The works that Mr. Akamitsu, Mr. Sakonda, and Mr. Goto presented could each be discussed at length. Mr. Sakonda’s piece, to mention only one example, featured formant synthesis that morphed between the vocal timbres of a young boy and girl. The voice part, which was heard through a small loudspeaker which made it sound like a monophonic radio broadcast received from a remote time and place, was accompanied by a robotic percussion ensemble that rendered a simple yet evocative ostinato pattern. The overall result was stunning.

A highlight of the workshop were the evening presentations on topics in robotics. On the first night of the workshop, Mr. Yamasaki described his humanoid Pino robot which, through its appearance in rock videos and television commercials, is famous across Japan. The second night, Kunio Nomoto and Yasuji Tanaka spoke about the premise of Fischertechnik robot kits as applications that could be used to spur pre-college interest in the sciences. Common to both presentations were demonstrations and discussion of the difficulties of making robots walk, balance, and accomplish other similar tasks that humans do with ease.

The presentation on the third night of the workshop by Ken Kohda and Guru Hoshino also explored the capabilities and ramifications of robots, but in this case as they could be used for comedy. Mr. Kohda and Mr. Hoshini presented their Happy Star Interface project (www.happystar.com/), which consists of a Java application that translates incoming text messages from cellphones into commands that can be sent by wireless transmission to Fischertechnik robots. As the demonstration progressed, audience members joined the presenters in sending messages to the robots. The cascade of messages produced unpredictable behavior; the audience had no way to control the exact sequence in which the robots processed the commands from their server. Mr. Kohda and Mr. Hoshini are engineers who could have successful careers as comics if they so chose. Their dialogue throughout the demonstration was hilarious. They highlighted the zaniness of the proceedings by wearing white lab coats and yellow hardhats and by attaching two arms made from spatulas to one of their robots (see Figure 2).

The fourth and last evening presentation was a forum for participants to show how they used Max/MSP/Jitter to control the Fischertechnik robots built over the course of the workshop. Even if the robots and Max patches did not always function as intended, they nonetheless demonstrated how robotics, as an artistic medium, has much to offer.

The workshop concluded on March 23 with a concert that again featured the work of the faculty.Mr. Akamitsu presented a piece that displayed another aspect of the robotic arms. The composition, which he controlled while sitting onstage at a portable computer, began with a long, extended, iconic gesture in which a mechanical arm slowly extended itself until it pointed straight up into the air. This produced a palpable sense of expectation and it suggested a future where robots will exert great influence upon the rituals of the concert stage.

Mr. Goto presented a piece in which percussion instruments played by the robotic arms were amplified to extremes. This sent several members of the audience, myself included, to shelter in areas of the hall that were not directly in front of the large speaker stacks at the front of the stage. While the sheer volume level of Mr. Goto’s piece may have been overwhelming for some, the conceptual dimensions of the work, as well as its overall form and content, successfully posed relevant questions for everyone in attendance. What exactly should robotic music sound like? Should it or should it not be heard in the same context in which we listen to human performers? What distinguishes robotic and human music-making and how can these difference be explored through art?

In sum, the fifth annual DPS Off Summer School was a stunning success. The organizers put together a wonderful schedule of events that provocatively explored the workshop theme of robots and music. Their enthusiasm for helping the workshop participants to create challenging projects was infectious and inspiring. The concerts they produced were provocative and all of the presentations, by faculty and guest lecturers, were fascinating and well worth attending. I should also mention that I’m grateful to Masayuki Akamatsu, Nobuyasu Sakonda, Suguro Goto, Shigeru Kobayashi, and Takeko Kawamura for making all events accessible to me through their thoughtful translations.