David L. McMullen's Uncanny Humanoid Haircut

            David L. McMullen recently posted on the Inventables website a featured project that involved the use of hand moldable plastic to form the facial features of an android. The plastic used here is a true thermoplastic, able to be heated and re-formed any number of times without degradation to the material. With a low melting temperature of only 136-140°F (58-60°C), this material is ideal for tooling with the hand and can be used for a plethora of applications as David’s use here as robot hair demonstrates.

David L. McMullen's robotic hair made from hand moldable plastic

            A question we might ask that arises from this use of hand moldable plastics is simple enough: why give an android hair in the first place? Facial features serve no immediate or practical utility on these designs. Under a strict credo of form following function, such details may even seem superfluous. Indeed, David’s plastic hair may not be as practically useful as say the android’s limbs or digits. But I would argue that this facial detailing is of important psychological significance in relation to the so-called “uncanny valley”.
            In the fields of robotics and 3D graphics, the term uncanny valley is used often when referring to the surface level aesthetics of a given design. The term essentially refers to a state in which the design in question hovers between the threshold of “barely human” and “fully human”. Examples of these uncanny aesthetics might include Weta Digital’s photorealistic graphics in the recent film The Adventures of Tintin (2011) or the actroid models developed by both the Korea Institute of Industrial Technology and Osaka University.

Uncanny designs from Weta Digital and students at the Osaka University in Osaka, Japan

            Designs falling into this threshold of human likeness are often met with an anxious response. When tooling an aesthetic that has slipped into the valley, robotics engineers and graphic designers alike attempt to push the image of their product into full blown simulacrum or pull the aesthetic back into something that is obviously other than human.[1] The overall design of David’s android falls more into the category of barely human. It possesses the basic biped anatomy of a human being but the exposed electronics show it to be anything but. And yet there is the hair. The plastic facial detailing on David’s android pushes the overall design closer to the uncanny valley, an area of representation that normative robotics design tells us is a faux pas.
            On the other hand, we might see the uncanny valley as symbolic territory that is in need of exploration, particularly in today’s climate of accelerated technological advancement. Elsewhere in the design community, the creation of artificial life and intelligence is progressing in leaps and bounds. Advanced computer coding, for instance, is now able to produce entirely immaterial digital bots that can exhibit complex behavior when performing tasks with incredibly large sets of data. These bots execute actions that can produce immense ramifications but go about their work in the black box installations of server farms and digital networks. These algorithmically produced creatures go about their work with no face.

MIT professor Kevin Slavin's 2011 TedTalk explores the idea of renegade stock market algorithms

            It would seem then that by pushing robotics farther into the uncanny valley, as David has done with his hand molded plastic hair, we may give a familiar skin to an unfamiliar being. This face may induce anxiety and even fear in the user, as a traditional response to the uncanny valley would predict. But to me, the greater fear is an artificial intelligence that I cannot see let alone recognize. David’s android, with its slick plastic haircut, looks actually to be quite a friend to human and machine alike.

[1] For an example of these adjustments, think of the replicants in Ridley Scott’s 1982 film Bladerunner versus Dyson’s upcoming DC06 robotic vacuum cleaner.

Beer & Making

At Inventables we have an occasional event in the late afternoon called Beer and Making.  Whoever is available goes down to the fabrication area and we socialize, drink beer and make stuff.  It is the Inventables equivalent of eating our own dog food.

I decided to make an official sign for the event.  I grabbed a piece of 12” x 12” x ¾” bamboo plywood.  I enjoy working in bamboo because it does not require a finish, machines amazingly well and smells cool when you work with it.  On this project I did zero post machining clean up other than a light shot of compressed air.  Total hands-on project time was about 1 hour.  I did not take any pictures during the job unfortunately.

Graphic Design

I wanted it to to have a bar sign and beer look to it.  I used Google Image search with the keywords of beer, Chicago, craft, and sign and found a Chicago Craft Beer logo on a glass.  The bottle cap and beer sign theme was just what I was looking for.

I dragged the logo into CorelDraw.  It was low res and at an odd angle so I just slid it off to the side for inspiration.  The single color of the logo made it perfect for a V-Carve project.

V-Carving allows fine detail using a V bit.  Normally the detail is limited by the diameter of the bit.  With a V bit, you can choose any diameter by varying the depth of the cut.  V Carving requires special software CAM to generate the tool paths.  I used  VCarve Pro from Vectric.

I played around with some ideas and came up with decent logo in few minutes.  The logo was exported to DXF for importing into VCarve.


The next step is to setup a project in VCarve to match the size of the material.  On jobs like this, I like to set X0,Y0 in the center.  The next step is to move the graphic objects into layers.  This was a relatively simple job, so I only made two layers.  One for the outer cap crimp area and one for the rest of the project.

With V carving, the wider the space you want to cut, the deeper the bit needs to go.  At some point that depth will exceed the material thickness.  To prevent this, you can set a maximum depth and everything wider than that limit will have a flat bottom.  The outer ring of the cap has a thin enough cut area so that is not a problem and a flat area would not look right anyway, so this was setup to cut without a flat depth.  The interior has very large cut areas so a flat depth of 0.15” was chosen.  

You need to choose the diameter of the flat bottom bit.  A large bit will clear the area quickly, but have trouble getting into the corners.  Where the flat bit cannot get, the V bit will clear up.  You need to set a tiny stepover on a V bit to do a flat bottom, so determining the most efficient flat bottom bit requires a little experimenting.  I used a ½” diameter straight flute V bit and a ¼” diameter straight bit for the flat bottom tool.  All toolpaths were set to be done in a single depth pass.


To make the painting step super easy I used the following trick.  I used some white vinyl masking material from Avery to cover the top surface.  I made sure there were no bubbles and rubbed it down hard with my palms to get it to really stick.  I then draw a line from corner to corner to mark the center.  The bits will cut through the mask and then it can be painted simply by spraying.

I did not need a sacrificial layer under the work piece because there are no operations that could cut through.  I clamped at the corners because they are clear of cuts.  You need to very carefully check the level of the top surface and shim as required.  A change in height will change the width of cut areas.  The bamboo was near perfect and did not require any adjustments.

I ran the two v carving paths first.  The outer ring took about 8 minutes and the inner areas took about 14 minutes.  The flat bottom cut took about 9 minutes.


The painting was done with a standard spray paint can.  I have had issues in the past where the masking shrinks or shrivels at this stage.  I think it is from too much paint.  I now put down a few very light initial coats to stabilize it.  After that you can spray at will.  It usually takes about three good coats to get full coverage.  You don’t want too much or you will see a lip of paint around all masked areas.

I let it dry for several hours after the last coat.  After that I used an Exacto knife to catch the edge and lift each piece of mask.  It is really fun to slowly reveal the finished project.  The last thing you do of course is spell check the completed project.

Chicago area MAKEaTHON

When we were out at MakerFaire 2013 in San Mateo we caught up with the guys from Motorola that are driving around the country in vehicles outfitted with digital manufacturing equipment.  We're excited to report that they are coming to Chicago! This weekend's MAKEaTHON will be at Northwestern University in Evanston, IL and is being hosted by the Segal Design Institute. Next Thursday July 18th at 7pm they will be visiting Pumping Station: One on CNC Build Night and Inventables is teaming up with them to do a Gonzo build that includes MakerSlide and a cell phone. Details of the Gonzo build are below this video.

The weekend schedule at the Segal Design Institute at Northwestern will be as follows:
Friday, July 12          6pm-9pm
Saturday, July 13     10am-10pm
Sunday, July 14        10am-4pm

The PS: One event will start at 7pm on Thursday July 18th.

We'll be building a CNC Machine combined with a phone hack.  We do one night group builds that we call gonzo builds because it is a crazy build spread across the building and fabrication machines.  
I think I have a perfect project for this collaboration.  We could build a motorized camera slider using MakerSlide.  The camera would be a cell phone.  The cell phone would provide the camera part as well as a way to tell the slider where to go.

The Build Club will design and build the machine.  We will fabricate the parts on the machines at PS1 as well as in the Moto van.  Moto will help us with the phone part.

To use the machine ideally a user would have a phone in hand that is showing live video from the phone on the slider.  There will also be some sort of interface on the user's phone to tell the slider phone to go left or right.

The slider will have power so we can provide charge power to the slider phone at all times.

Later this month at Maker Faire Detroit we have a MakerSlide booth where this could be prominently displayed.  We might orient this vertically on a 15 footer so people could get get high view of the fair or maybe even tweet out a picture of themselves.

Here are two posts from previous gonzo builds.


About Pumping Station One

Pumping Station One is Chicago hackerspace that just celebrated its fourth year of operation.  More details about PS:One and event can be found here.

About Make with Moto
MAKEwithMOTO is a project exploring how direct digital manufacturing and co-creation can be used to unlock new possibilities around smartphone hardware. To this end we're visiting Maker Faires and the country's best colleges and hosting MAKEaTHONs with exciting, brilliant, creative people.

We invite all makers, designers, engineers, hackers, coders, tinkerers and entrepreneurs to join us from Friday evening to Sunday afternoon to see what happens when we open up our smartphones to create some epic new hardware. We're providing a VELCRO-covered van filled with the low- and high-tech prototyping tools (including a full set of 3D printers from 3D Systems) as well as hackable versions of our latest smartphones and all the other tools you'll need. 

About Inventables
At Inventables we understand it is harder for these smaller teams to source materials in smaller sizes and quantities for their new micro-production runs. To solve this problem, we are building a “Designers Hardware Store” that sells materials in small shapes and sizes for desktop fabrication. We believe this will streamline the process of local manufacturing. Through our website inventables.com we sell equipment and supplies in small quantities for purchase with a credit card. Our selection ranges from over 100 colors of acrylic sheets to 3D printers. Custom manufacturers, product designers, researchers, artists, and inventors purchase from our selection of about 30,000 products. 

Inventables on ABC 7 News talking about Digital Manufacturing and the new Innovation Lab at CPL

On Monday the Maker Lab at the Chicago Public Library opened to the public.   Here is a short news segment that we did on ABC 7 Chicago News to demonstrate the 3D printers, Laser Cutters, and CNC Milling machines that are installed at the lab.