Tag Archives: Bay Area Science Festival

Bots in the Bay

We hope you made it to some of the awesome events at the Bay Area Science Festival that wrapped up this weekend. A theme throughout numerous events for young and old were robotics. It’s no secret that we love robots here at BSR. We talked about the intrigue of aerial robotics before. We especially hope you had a chance to visit our sold-out event, Touch Me, and engaged with some fascinating innovations presented there. If you missed out, you can read all about robotic skin at Stanford and the work of Kal Spelletich with us online.

But we have to admit that, beyond the science, a small part of our fascination with robotics is pure enjoyment. Yes, the DARPA cheetah represents cutting-edge science, but the public’s interest in new robots extends beyond the science for the same reason the movie Transformers became a box office hit. Tinkering with robotics just for the fun of it was highlighted at BarBot, a gathering of cocktail robots in SF for the Science Festival. Read on to start your week off with a little body electric—we have awesome videos of robot bartenders for your perusal as well as some cool info on how to make your own robot here in the bay!

Let the Science Festivities Begin!

The Bay Area Science Festival starts today. You can see a complete schedule of events here.


Touch Me is THIS SUNDAY at the David Brower Center in Berkeley. We have been hard at work preparing this exciting event and have a few new important things to mention.

The amazing Dr. Kiki will be our “late show” host! Dr. Kiki Sanford founded the science podcast This Week In Science in 1999 while she was getting her Molecular, Cellular, and Integrative Physiology Ph.D at the University of California, Davis. She has been working non-stop to bring science research to the public ever since.

Machine artist Kal Spelletich will be there with his fantastical robots. As described in his bio, “For 25 years he has been experimenting with interfacing humans and robots…Kal’s work is always interactive, requiring a participant to enter or operate the piece, often against their instincts of self-preservation.”

I visited Kal’s studio myself last week. It was like entering a house of horrors. Large robots filled every available corner of space in his warehouse on the bay, crawling up the wall on shelf after shelf. Some of the robots were outfitted with animal skulls, humanoid dummies or dolls, others with bags of wine, still others with tree branches. Any feelings of horror were quickly replaced by a playful curiosity as I started to interact with the machines. One of the robots looked to me like a giant praying mantis, and Kal let me take it for a test drive. As my hands approached the sensors the mechanical beast lurched forward. These capacitive proximity sensors are commonly used in factories, as they are capable of sensing an object passing by without touching it. A trio of these sensors was hooked up to manipulate the robot. I quickly learned how my actions resulted in different movements, bringing the mantis forward and causing his pincers to hiss and crash together. Even with a bit of practice I never felt completely in control. I think that is why Kal’s machines are so intriguing. It is more of a dance between human and machine, rather than input equals output.

If you are interested in learning more about Kal’s work, you can read these recent articles in the New York Times and Yahoo News, and learn about upcoming exhibits on his blog.

Come and play with Kal’s robots yourself! At Touch Me, Kal will use the touch sensitive electronic skin described in this previous BSR post to control some of his robots. He will also bring hugging and hand gripping machines.

If all of the cool science discussion and exhibits including a giant robot hugging machine does not convince you to go, perhaps this will.

Your $5 admission covers all the FREE Pacific Brewing Laboratory 8.8% ABV Belgian Golden Strong Ale and tingling spice cocktails you can drink!

We hope to see you there. Buy your tickets today: touchme.eventbrite.com


Check out our three part series introducing the science of touch sensation, all in preparation for our Bay Area Science Festival event, Touch Me! Sunday, October 27th, from 6-10 PM at The David Brower Center in Berkeley. Click here for details and tickets.

TouchMe_poster1) The molecular basis of touch sensation — Learning about touch sensation from an unlikely creature, the star-nosed mole
2) Engineering touch sensation for robotics and prosthetics — Make awesome: the story of elastic electronic skin
3) Communicating emotion through touch — The Science of Touch and Emotion

Make Awesome: the story of elastic electronic skin

Of the five senses, touch is the most widely distributed throughout the body, and perhaps the most fundamental. A single fingertip has over 2500 touch receptors, which sense and transmit enough information to allow us to discriminate spatial distances as small as 40 micrometers (Tee, et al, 2013). Receptors distributed throughout our hands can sense extremely gentle pressures of around 100 pascals (equivalent to the feeling of a penny resting on a fingertip) as well as pressures of greater than 100 kilopascals (the feeling of gripping an object very tightly). Having such a wide range of sensitivities allows us to perform extremely delicate tasks, such as flipping the pages of a textbook, or pipetting primers into tiny PCR tubes.

From a materials engineering point of view, human skin is nature’s version of an elastomer-based pressure sensor, or, in layman’s terms, an extremely flexible material that is able to feel when it’s being pushed on, pulled, flexed or grazed. For many years, recreating the features of human skin by artificial means eluded researchers. Recently, however, several labs have made enormous strides in recreating the properties of human skin electronically. Over the past decade, Prof. Ali Javey and colleagues at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory developed a number of plastic- and rubber-based electronic skin prototypes. Meanwhile, in the laboratory of Prof. Zhenan Bao at Stanford University, graduate student Benjamin Tee helped develop two types of flexible electronic skin, including one that is able to repair itself after being damaged.

skinThe first prototype developed in the Bao laboratory relies on capacitors to detect changes in pressure and flexible organic transistors to amplify and relay signals emitted by the capacitors in a system known as a capacitive pressure sensor. This system is likely familiar to you, because a form of capacitive sensing is used in touch screens for smartphones and tablet computers. The basic building block of capacitive sensing systems are capacitors, devices that are used to temporarily store electrical energy. Though there are several types of capacitors, all contain at least two electrical conductors—usually metal plates—separated by a non-conductive insulator known as a dielectric. When current flows through a circuit and hits the capacitor, a difference in electrical potential is created between the capacitor’s plates, causing positive charge to collect on one plate and negative charge on the other. This in turn causes an electrical field to develop across the dielectric. The electrical field that is created can remain in the capacitor even if the current ceases to flow through the circuit. In this way, energy can be stored by the capacitor in the form of a static voltage spanning the conductors. When stored energy is released, the resulting current can be picked up by devices called transistors and amplified into a readable output current that is much stronger than the input current.