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This Animator-Turned-Roboticist Is Making a Universal Language for Robots

'Robot Animator' lets artists control industrial robot arms.

Andy Flessas, aka computer animator and roboticist andyRobot, wants to bring robots to life by "animating" them. To date, robots enabled with his unique software have taken to the stages of the likes of popstar Bon Jovi and DJ Deadmau5, to name but a few.

Now Flessas wants to bring his software to the artistic masses with "Robot Animator," a plugin for Autodesk's computer animation software Maya, which he released through German robotics manufacturer KUKA just last month.

"Robot Animator creates a new interface inside Autodesk Maya that's specific to robotics," Flessas told me. The software simplifies robotic programming for the user and "applies speed and acceleration correction" as users animate their robot in a simulation and see their commands replicated by a robot in real life.

"A lot of people were approaching me and wanting to buy a robot that they could control, but no one knows what they want to buy," Flessas told me. "They just know they want to work with robots."

Obsessed with technology from a young age, Flessas initially trained as a computer animator before he attended Zurich-headquartered manufacturer ABB's robotics training school in Detroit in 2000, where he certified as a roboticist. A stalwart proponent of the positive uses of technology, Flessas eventually mashed together his knowledge of computer animation and robotics to create his robot animation software, which he's been fine-tuning since the 1990s.

With Robot Animator, Flessas wants to allow artists to incorporate a KUKA industrial arm within their installations and art practices without having to invest time into learning complex programming skills, or dishing out lots of money for technical support. "This software reflects what I think it is that people need," he said.

andyRobot working on Deadmau5's robotic arm. Image: andyRobot

For the moment, Flessas has started collaborating creatively with Nigel Stanford, a visual artist and musician from New Zealand, and Koichiro Doi, a Japanese fashion photographer, to bridge the divide between robot and creator. Stanford, who is using Flessas' software to transform his robotic arms into bandmates, said that working with robots wasn't exactly easy, but that Flessas' software gave him greater control.

"[Robots] are potentially dangerous and need to be treated with respect," said Stanford. "Robot Animator was great to use, without it, I wouldn't have been able to program the robots in time to the music, as the standard programming tools are not time-based."

Over in Japan, Doi shared similar views, saying that Flessas' software allowed him to control robotic arms more intuitively. Doi intends to use the roving robotic arms instead of static tripods by mounting cameras, props, or lights on them. "I want to create a scene where everything moves in sync," he said."Robots have a very cryptic language and none of them speak the same one."

"Robots have a very cryptic language and none of them speak the same one."

While Flessas aims to bridge the gap between creators and robots, he also wants his software to provide a common language for industrial robots in the future.

Deadmau5's robotic arm. Image: andyRobot

"In factories, you'll see a manufacturing line with hundreds of robots and they'll all be from one brand. They don't really mix them in factories," said Flessas. "Robots have a very cryptic language and none of them speak the same one. So what I'm doing is using Robot Animator to create a new language of animation that happens to be robotic."

Flessas envisions a future where robots from different companies could collaborate with one another in a manufacturing setting, drawing on the strengths of each other and making whatever task they're carrying out more efficient.

"We can mix and match," said Flessas. "What that means for industry is that manufacturers can say, 'Aha, I can talk with a different brand.' It's like the animator becomes the bridge between the different robot languages, bridging together the different robot brands with the common language of animation," he said.