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Photo courtesy of Northwestern University.

A robotic puppet, created by Todd Murphey. Her movements are computer-controlled as Murphey is explores using these puppets on the stage of "autonomous theater."

Shedding the strings: Robotic puppets move into the future

by Andrea Towers
Apr 25, 2013


Andrea Towers/MEDILL

Todd Murphey, associate professor of engineering at Northwestern University, talks about robotic puppets Thursday night, as part of Northwestern's Science Cafe series.

Puppets always seem to have a life of their own. But is it actually possible to create a puppet that moves without the help of a human? That’s what Todd Murphey, associate professor of engineering, hopes to achieve thanks to his work in robotics and engineering.

Speaking to a captive audience at Northwestern University’s Science Café on Thursday, Murphey emphasized how increasingly sophisticated motion sensors and modern engineering influence the ways we encounter, produce, and create art.

“Typically, when you go see a play, there are lots of puppets that look similar to each other,” said the professor. “But really, they’re all very different, because up above, the way the mechanics are put together varies based on the motion that the puppeteers are trying to create. In any typical play, there are usually 5-6 different puppets used for different motions.”

Murphey, who started his academic career as a music performance major, credited his theater background with helping him better understand the link between art and science. He became interested in robotics and the possibility of autonomous storytelling several years ago.

“With every iteration, motion becomes more dramatic,” he said, admitting that the original plan of synthesizing human motion directly to marionette motion was much more difficult than he anticipated. “What we developed are procedures that scale to something as specific as marionettes, that allow us to produce motions that are relevant.”

Murphey explained how dramatic anticipation, physical interaction and being perfectly synchronized is an important part of what makes robotic puppets work successfully. But because his objective is to create something that works every time rather than just once, each step of the process is a complicated layer that must be tweaked in detail.

To illustrate how complex this research is, he referenced the popular film “Avatar,” a combination of conventional human acting and elaborate computer animation.

“In that case, you have experienced animators who know the parameters of the software,” he said. “They can go in and make it look right and they can take that data, write it to a file, and then they don’t have to worry about it ever again. It turns out to be a much lower bar.”

During and after Murphey’s talk, attendees of all ages tried out high-tech dramatization by standing in front of a computer screen and watching their actions as they were mimicked by computer animated robots – or rather, “puppets.”

Phil Cable, a frequent attendee of Science Café events, said it was interesting to see how much research goes into a concept such as robotics.

“Hearing its application to other designs that were being talked about…it makes you realize that the application of science to art related projects is a process that can be used in other areas,” he said.

Despite Murphey’s intense immersion in the field, the million-dollar question still stands for him. If we can engineer puppets to stage their own performance, is it still theater as we know it?

“At minimum, this requires a tremendous amount of delicacy and human cognition. And when puppeteers are creating puppet theater, that same human element is present that I think that is present here,” he said. “The likelihood that we could get rid of that is very low. But because the audience does not play a role, we end up with something not responsive to the audience in the way that theater always is. And so there is a real way that this probably shouldn’t be considered theater, but I think that’s part of why it’s interesting.”