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All posts by mark gross

Mark is the Research Director at Modular Robotics LLC.
tibbetts Everyone likes to win, and we’re no exception. This month, we won the distinguished Tibbetts award, which the USA Small Business Administration gives annually to a handful of the companies that it’s funded through its Small Business Innovative Research grants. The award recognizes companies “for the critical role they play in research and development for the government and for their success in driving innovation and creating new jobs.” This year eighteen companies received Tibbetts awards, which — considering that the SBIR program funds over $2.5 billion each year in eleven government departments and agencies — makes it a pretty big deal. And props back at you, NSF: we wouldn’t be where we are today without our early funding from the National Science Foundation.
This robot made of only Distance and Flashlight Cubelets (and, of course, a Battery Cubelet) has been on our coffee table at Modular Robotics for weeks. Wave your hands over the surface and the Flashlight Cubelets light up. It’s fun to play with, and can be easily reconfigured to different layouts.
I love our lighthearted Cubelets! video, which has reached over 350,000 viewers so far.  And now we also have a more “serious” video about Cubelets, courtesy of Inside Science TV, which is produced by the American Institute of Physics.  The short video is titled “Making a Robot is now Child’s Play”, and may be a more suitable introduction for those who wonder about the educational value of Cubelets.   Cool to be rubbing shoulders with pieces like “Physicists Detect New Heavy Particle”!
Last week Modular Robotics took Cubelets to the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas.  Crazy!  For four days our booth was mobbed by retailers, resellers, manufacturers, reporters, engineers, editors, starry-eyed startups and jaded serial entrepreneurs, videographers, bloggers, big-box buyers, business advisors, geeks, and venture capitalists.   It was exhausting and fun.  We were in the ‘Eureka Park’ section (thanks, National Science Foundation, for sponsoring us), surrounded by other new companies with emerging technologies, and we always had a crowd at our table playing with Cubelets.   We did a lot of video interviews, answered a lot of questions, and we got a lot of free advice.   And everyone seems to know a kid who needs Cubelets! Excelsior!  
Last weekend I spoke at Paulo Blikstein’s FabLearn symposium at the Center for Educational Research at Stanford. Paulo has a well-equipped fabrication lab (Transformative Learning Technologies Lab) and a gaggle of great graduate students, and a mission to engage young people in fabrication: FabLab@School. FabLearn focused on integrating fabrication technologies into secondary education, attracting ~45 outstanding STEM educators from both formal (school) and informal (museums, after-school, and summer camps) sectors. My chum Mike Eisenberg (Craft Tech Lab, Colorado) argued for an approach to education that integrates making into children’s lives (an “anthropological approach”), rather than diagnosing and repairing cognitive deficiencies; Dale Dougherty (MAKE) spoke about efforts to build Maker communities, and Neil Gershenfeld (MIT Media Lab) laid out the Bits & Atoms vision and FabLab spinoffs. I talked about construction kits and showed Cubelets.  Excellent cross-talk and optimism about how making things engages kids in learning. Kudos to Paulo for making it happen, and Modular Robotics was happy to be there.
photo of Arthur Correll (6) with Cubelets We had a little party Thursday afternoon for our local Boulder friends. Happily for us, some brought kids. Amidst a crowded hubbub of geeky grownups Elliott Dobbs (he’s six, with one more month in kindergarten) and Arthur Correll (he’s five and a half) sat there building robots! Right now we have only one Cubelets kit–the all-black engineering prototype that’s in our video–so they had to share, but that worked fine. At first they just snapped blocks together randomly to see what would happen. But pretty soon they began to understand the different functions of each Cubelet and the gradient dataflow model that makes the robots go. With single-minded focus on building robots they worked quietly for over an hour and a half (ignoring the Lego Mindstorms robot and other toys on the table next to them). And for me that was the best part of the party–to see young kids playing with Cubelets entirely entranced.
Packaging Design Cubelets drawing OK, so we’re getting ready to ship our first 100 Cubelets kits, and we’d like to do better than just putting them in a big padded envelope. So, we’re asking for your help in spreading the word about our Packaging Design Competition. Basically: design a package for shipping and storage of our 20-block Standard Cubelets Kit and win a $1000 cash prize and/or a Standard Cubelets Kit. The rules and details are simple enough; the competition ends April 15, 2011.10
My friend Don Witte, the W in W.H.O., a construction kit toy company of the 1960s, designed several clever construction kits. In its day, his company was much in the same spirit as Modular Robotics is today. He wrote, “While adults are going to the moon, their children are playing with primitive wooden blocks, sticks, and nuts and bolts. Isn’t it time to provide our children with construction toys which fully utilize the advances in technology and the materials of the time?” We couldn’t agree more. The company produced working prototypes of four kits: Moduflex, Cylispheres, Zox, and MollyCools. They’re each different–Moduflex was perhaps the most technically sophisticated with gears and chains as well as a snap-together panel system, and it came in variations–a train kit, an architectural kit, and more. The prototypes were all made on an injection molding machine in Don’s dome in the hills west of Boulder. Sadly, they never came to market, but Don was kind enough to let me have his kits.
I’m just now getting around to posting about the NSF SBIR Phase II Grantees meeting that I attended last month, in Baltimore.   Our SBIR grant requires that we attend this meeting each year.    The meeting is designed to help grantee businesses “share their technical and commercial achievements with the NSF program staff, potential investors and strategic partners, as well as having an opportunity to network with other small businesses for possible collaborations to grow their businesses.”   Lots of information to help techies make their good ideas become reality. Of course, with hundreds of companies in a wide range of technical areas, the meeting can be overwhelming.   For example, I went to a talk on “New Synthetic Approaches to Higher Performance, Lower Cost CO2/CH4 Gas Separation Membranes” — good stuff, but a little far from Modular Robotics’s core business.   Still, it was good to meet the other  SBIR II education grantees, which include our friends Alex Repenning (Agentsheets), Chris Hancock and Ricky Carter from Tertl Studios, and robotics company Road Narrows, Agile Mind (co-founded by Adele Goldberg), and many more.   I don’t have any pictures from the meeting (big hotel ballroom with lots of people), but  above you can see our dazzling entry for the poster session, where I also gave impromptu demos of our old prototype.
One big influence on our Modular Robotics concept is the book, Vehicles, by Valentino Braitenberg. If you don’t already know this book, you’re in for a treat! In short and simple chapters, Braitenberg leads the reader through a series of thought-experiments in synthetic psychology. The ‘vehicles’ are creatures made of motors, sensors, and simple neuron-like logic gates. The first vehicles, for example, move toward or away from light. Gradually, as you connect the sensors, motors, and logic in more complex ways, the vehicles begin to seem to exhibit lifelike behaviors. How many Vehicles will we be able to make with our robotics construction kits?