Jesse Seay > Composition for 6 Robots // Programming Roombas with Arduinos

Two Weeks at Steim

I’m working on a sound installation piece using 6 iRobot “Create” robots– more recognizable to the mass market as “Roombas” but without the vacuum cleaner installed. I brought two of the robots from Chicago with me, and helped Steim acquire one as well, so we had 3 to work with. Even before I had arrived, Byungjun Kwon and I were discussing, via email, what hardware solution would be best for the piece. He suggested the Arduino board, and as soon as I arrived, Jun began tutoring me in Arduino programming. The trick was to get the Arduino to speak the same Roomba code as the robots, and he found a solution online with NewSoftSerial. Once he did that, it was just a question of deciding what the robots ought to be doing. I knew I wanted them to “sing” independently of each other, and I knew I wanted them to respond to their environment, but I was still experimenting to find the right “voice” for them— how can you make beeping robot vacuum cleaners sound like more than just a household appliance? So Jun devised a program that allows me to plug in a list of different short compositions. Whenever the robots bump into something, the sensors trigger each robot to cycle through the list. Now I could experiment with different notes by easily plugging in different compositions.

Experimenting was made especially fun by the presence of “test audiences” — one of the staff brought her young daughter in, and I learned a great deal watching how she interacted with the piece. I also started exploring ideas on how to create sound acoustically with the robots. My plan eventually is to develop an interactive non-electronic environment for the robots to move through. I’m working with a fabricator right now to create an acrylic top for each robot, with which I’ll experiment with adding acoustic enhancements. Once that’s up and running, expect fun images!

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