Pop!Tech: Cellos, Caleb Chung, and cute robots

Using samplers and loops to give texture to a solo instrumental performance is an old technqiue. I remember hearing a solo mbira player fill a room with sound almost twenty years ago, using early digital delay pedals to turn his tiny instrument into a buzzing, metalic orchestra. A lot of this music ends up repetitive and self-indulgent, filled with echo.

Not Zoë Keating. Member of gothic cello ensemble Rasputina, she uses a Macintosh sampler and sequencer to layer rich textures of sound into pieces that sound like they might be performed by Kronos Quartet in a particularly minimal mood. Perhaps it’s the richness of sounds that can be brought out by the cello when Keating taps it with her bow, knocks on the side of the instrument and pulls harmonics from high on the strings. Or perhaps she’s just really good at what she does.


Caleb Chung is a very funny man. He introduces himself as German-Chinese, noting, “The Dick Cavet joke is ‘An hour later, you’re hungry for power.'” He shows us a wonderful demo reel of toys he’s created – not the hugely successful Furby that he created, but some less memorable toys, like a set of McDonald’s toys that produce food, like “fries” cut from a piece of bread. He quickly walks us through toy successes and failures in the past. There’s an amazing set of fighting robots, animatronic dinasours, legos controlled by remote control. It requires a great sense of humor to show your past failures in a way that’s this funny…

Chung has worked as a toy designer for Mattel, an actor, a street mime, a movie prop-master. But at root, he’s a tinkerer, an investor who builds cool things in his garage. He tells us the philosophy is to blend art and science, “beauty and magic”… and wrap the whole package in a thick layer of business logic.

He explains the process that led to the alarmingly successful Furby. It began with a realization that he “wanted to bring things to life”, something that came from his days as an animatronics guy from films. His previous experiences told him that a toy requiring more than one motor would get stripped down – “so I did one motor, $0.30. How can you say no to one motor?”

His early sketches were as simple as “a furball” animated by a single motor. They grew complicated, as he figured out how to build complex expressions by turning the motor back and forth and sensing its position. And then he built the toy in his garage, building a tilt sensor from a BB in a box and complex cams from gluing together plastic gears. There’s a long process involved with turning the rough skeleton into a design – he and his wife worked together, coloring outlines, skinning other dolls to make skins for the creature and generally having a great time.

The result? A toy that Tiger fought to purchase the rights for, and ultimately sold 40 million units of worldwide. Chung retired very briefly: “I’m retired. It’s great. (pauses a beat.) Okay, what are we going to do?”

The answer – create a real lifeform, something that can respond to the human need for empathy. He explains, “you can’t have your pet at work, you can’t have it for a sick kid in the hospital.” We need toys that evoke emotions… and Pleo is Chung’s attempt at that toy.

Chung worked from a real dinsaour skeleton to use the proportions of a living creature and used textures from actual Sauropod skin. Building motors to power the skeleton required making motors fit within the musculator of the actual dinosaur. But the creature has the large, photorealistic eyes that characterized the Furby. “It’s a long process. You hire a sculptor, you fire a sculptor.” Building Pleo cost $10 million and took 4 years. But what results is pretty amazing.

Pleo is a cat-sized dinosaur robot that evokes much the same response as a live puppy. A video of five of the creatures is disgustingly cute. Chung explains his three laws of robotics, which are very different from Azimov’s rules. Robots must:
– Feel and convey emotions
– Be aware of themselves and their environment
– Learn and develop over time

Pleo’s powered by 37 sensors, 14 motors, 7 microcontrollers. His manufacturer, a huge Chinese manufacturing firm, calls it the most complex product they’ve ever built. It senses sight, sound and “changes over time.” And when he brings it on stage, it nuzzles Chung’s laptop, takes a $20 from his hand, and Chung can’t stop talking to it as if it’s a baby or a cat. His company, Ugobe, calls it a “lifeform”. At $350, it’s hard to sell it as a toy. But this might just be the sort of toy that raises the bar for what robotics can and should do in a consumer marketplace.

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2 Responses to Pop!Tech: Cellos, Caleb Chung, and cute robots

  1. Caleb Chung says:

    Ethan,

    I know it’s vain to read your own press, but alas, I do (old entertainer habit).
    That aside, I just wanted to thank you for taking the time to do what you do. I admire what you (and others of course) are doing for the developing world. My one day experience at POP!Tech moved me so deeply, I think I will change careers in the near future, really.

    Thant’s all,

    Thanks,

    Caleb

  2. Ethan says:

    It’s not vain to read blog press, Caleb, just smart. I rely on people reading my posts to correct me when I get their talks wrong.

    It’s really exciting to hear that someone of your creativity, humor and intellect might turn your attention towards the developing world. If you do, please let me know what I can do to help and to introduce you to the hundreds of amazing people who’d love to work with you and learn from you.

    -Ethan

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