The cutting edge work that Madeline Gannon does is highly complex, but to put it in the simplest terms, she invents “better ways to communicate with machines that make things.” Most recently Madeline set out to develop a way for industrial robots, which she describes as “truly incredible” machines, but “fairly dumb” and “very dangerous” due to their inability to “see” their surroundings, to more safely and easily work with humans in close quarters. So she gave them “eyes,” rendering a major (and mind-blowingly cool) innovation in human-computer interaction with far reaching implications and endless application possibilities.

Madeline’s project is called Quipt, which she developed during her Fall 2015 residency at Pier 9, a creative community of designers, engineers, artists, and product innovators. The system centers on a gesture-based control software that gives industrial robots basic spatial behaviors for interacting closely with people. Wearable markers and a motion capture system let the robot see and respond to you in a shared space. This lets you and the robot safely follow, mirror, and avoid one another as you collaborate together.

“You don’t need to be Tony Stark to have a robot assistant anymore.” – Discover Magazine, on Madeline’s project

To grasp the monumental impact of her software, you have to first understand the nature, limits, and dangers of industrial robots as they are used today. Madeline writes of the intrinsic challenges with these machines that inspired her to develop Quipt

Industrial robots are truly incredible CNC machines –– not just for their speed, power, and precision, but because they are also highly adaptable. Unlike other CNC machines, when you put a tool on the end of the robot, you completely transform what it can do: put a sprayer on it, and it becomes a painting robot; put a gripper on it, and it becomes a material handling robot; put a welder on it, and it becomes a spot welding robot. [Editor’s Note: CNC is the acronym for Computer Numerical Control machines or machine tools that can be controlled by a computer.]

This adaptability has made the industrial robot a key piece of infrastructure for factory automation over the past 50 years. But despite their adaptability, industrial robots are fairly dumb machines: they have little-to-no awareness of the environment outside of their programmed tasks. This is one of the main reasons why industrial robots have thrived only in highly controlled environments, like factories. They need places where unpredictable objects (a.k.a. people) are strictly separated from their work zones.

But an industrial robot’s adaptability is useful beyond the factory. Putting a film camera onto an industrial robot gives a director precise, complex, and repeatable camera moves. Putting a loader onto an industrial robot gives a construction worker a way to move heavier quantities of materials. Putting a light onto an industrial robot gives a photographer more precise control of a scene’s ambiance. While these are somewhat mundane use cases, they tease out some of the biggest challenges for bringing industrial robots outside of the factory: because they are blind to the world, they are very dangerous to use; because they need highly technical skill to program, they are very difficult to use.

Madeline’s Quipt changes all of that and adds safety and ease where it never existed before. Brava!

What Else You Should Know About Madeline

madeline-gannon-profileMadeline Gannon heads MADLAB.CC, a design collective exploring computational approaches to design, craft, and interaction. She is a researcher, designer, and educator at Carnegie Mellon University. Her work blends disciplinary knowledge from design, robotics, and human-computer interaction to explore the edges of digital creativity.

Madeline is currently pursuing a PhD in Computational Design from Carnegie Mellon University, where she is developing natural gesture interfaces for digital fabrication machines.