Is it art or is it a machine? As far as ceramicist and mechanical engineer Jonathan Tippett is concerned it doesn’t matter. Tippett and his friends are in the process of building Prosthesis, a two-storey tall, wearable walking anti-robot robot which, when completed, will alert folks to the issue of energy and remind them that humans have mastery over their machines.
“This machine is no more a robot than your car is a robot,” says Tippett of his future creation. “It has a lot of sophisticated technology in it but without a human pilot it’s completely inanimate.”
Encased in a full body skeletal interface with feedback to the motors, the pilot or driver will sit atop Prosthesis’s four legs controlling its movement by mimicking the human gait. Tippett showed how it will work by demonstrating a key component called the Alpha Leg and its control sleeve at Vancouver’s annual Maker Faire last weekend. “The machine has its own muscles but you are one hundred percent in control,” says Tippett.
Maker Faires originated in California eight years ago and have spread like wildfire across Canada and the United States. They are gathering places for people who make things, whether it’s techie things with capacitors and transistors or crafty things like weaving and quilts. Participants are free-thinkers driven by curiosity, impatience with the status quo and the need to express themselves creatively. Tippett fits right in.
“Prosthesis is a counterpoint to the relentless automation of everything,” says Tippett. “What I sometimes call the theft of experience by technology. Sometimes the use of technology is extremely important and valuable,” he says. “But in terms of broadening the scope of human experience sometimes you first need to get computers out of the way.”
Tippett is part of a larger collective called the eatART Foundation. Created in 2006 by five engineering graduates and a designer anxious to explore engineering as a creative medium, the current group now includes 12 electrical and mechanical engineers who meld and weld technology with art.
Energy. That’s the common theme that runs throughout their projects. There’s Prosthesis of course, Titanoboa, a 20 metre long electromechanical serpent and Mondo Spider, an earlier and smaller eight-legged walking machine. The Foundation’s goal is to educate people about the role energy plays in our lives, to get them thinking about the resource and ultimately conserving it.
It’s a cheeky and expensive way to get their point across. So far Prosthesis has cost an estimated $ 40,000 in materials alone. Half of that has come from sponsors as materials-in-kind and the rest came out of Tippett’s pocket. The Foundation has some pretty heavy muscle behind it – a steel fabricating company, British Columbia’s Institute of Technology, Vancouver’s Centre for Digital Media – but marketing guy Ryan Whyte says he needs another $ 125,000 to make Prosthesis a reality. “This is so cool, I just want to be part of it,” he says about the Foundation’s objectives. He intends to launch a crowd-sourcing campaign in November.
No fuzzy headed eco idealists, these artist / engineers hold down day jobs to pay the rent and finance their passion. Whyte runs his own digital marketing agency while Tippett works for a Vancouver R & D firm developing tiny brain and heart implants for the medical device industry. When asked if spending his free time and money on projects with no commercial application is a waste of time Tippett is quick to respond. “Tennis is a waste of time; songs are a waste of time. I make art and art has a message.” … That message will be coming soon to a Maker Faire near you.