Here comes the National Robotics Week…

April 12th, 2010 • RoboticsNo Comments »

The preface: Here comes the national robotics week. It started in 2009 with promises for roadmaps and displays of U.S. leadership in robotics in the 21st century. Most of us engineers though, started by thinking, “Robots, they sound awesome!, I want to build me one of those”.

Then as we grew up, came the craze for R2D2, C3P0 and Lt. Commander Data. Ah, who doesn’t remember the scene in the StarTrek TNG 2×09 where Maddo finally admits Data is not an “it” but a “he”..alright, you don’t have to be that “into” robotic pulp fiction to be a robotocist or a robotics-scientist.

It would be cool for me to promise, and deliver a post each day for the entire national robotics week, but alas, life can get to be a bit crazy. Instead, I will try to simply write a little bit on robotics and hope if you are new, you learn something and if you have been around the block a bit, you simply enjoy the pleasure of reminiscence.

The origin of the word “robot”

Karel Capek (1890 – 1938) a Czech playwright who led a short, yet influential life coined the term “robot” for his play R.U.R (Rossum’s Universal Robotics). The play was about these chemical (yes, not mechanical!) inventions that liberated humans from repetitive tasks at first and then caused chaos because of general unhappiness brought about by “tea party” activists that had nothing better to do. Okay, I stretched a bit – there was more unrest following the unhappiness. Oh yeah, the tea party thing was a lie I made up too.

In any case, given the fact that the “end of the world” has played into the fears of folks across generations, the play was a great success and the name stuck!

Robotics and Asimov

Of course, Asimov is somewhat of a father figure for robotics, given the fact that he was the first to use the term “robotics” in 1947. He did not stop there. He created several characters, short stories and fantasies that will one day take us closer to reality.

However, the most important contribution that Asimov made to science and robotics is well known – the three laws of robotics. You would be in for a big surprise if this is the first time you have heard of these laws. Let’s take a closer look.

The Three Laws of Robotics

The three laws of robotics, purported to be seminal to our permanent slaves, were coined, rendered, broken, fixed and written indelibly into our psyches. Yes, these laws are fictitious, science-fictitious if you want to get technical (you may be an engineer, after all!), they are still very pithy.

Asimov did not simply state three lame laws – robots will like the color red, they will speak Swahili and so on..instead, he conceived of robots as beings with a “positronic” brain, allowing them to possess intelligence that allows them to follow the laws under all circumstances. Therein lies the brilliance. Here are the laws:

1. A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.
2. A robot must obey any orders given to it by human beings, except where such orders would conflict with the First Law.
3. A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Law.

It would be heresy to compare these to Newton’s laws of motion, yet, they have their own status in our minds. The brilliance of Asimov lies in the fact that he was able to spin many a tale that took these laws and their interpretations to the edge of suspense, mystery and tenacity.

What is a robot today?

While a robot may have been seen as a chemical or a mechanical slave to the mundane or extraordinary in human affairs, today’s robots range from the far humbler to the more unexpected, yet pleasant devices. Robots range from the vacuum cleaners to ones that help perform surgery, rescue operations or deep sea explorations.

The versatile robot has many definitions, and many interpretations, however a few basics hold:

1. A robot is an autonomous device – that is, it can perform independently based on a concise set of instructions. So, is your car a robot? Not unless, given a road map and an instruction to start, it can start and drive itself to the destination.

2. A robot can perform repetitive or specifically designed tasks autonomously.

Does it sound a bit too mundane? Only till you see that first robot in action or till you build the first one. Of course many people prefer to give complex definitions to robots. However, the above two definitions should suffice to define the most basic or the most complex robots alike.

The reach of robots

Just today, as I was finishing up the blog, I came across an interesting article about the discovery of the world’s deepest undersea vents with the help of a robot titled, “Autosub6000”. Discoveries such as this are changing the way we think about robots and their influence on our lives!

As the National Robotics Week progresses, I will try to put together more on these wonderful devices that have captured our imagination!





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A case study in poor design packaging – The “Ozark Trail Vacuum Bottle”

September 14th, 2009 • Packaging Design, Product Design1 Comment »

Blame me for shopping at Wal Mart if you must. But I am broke, and this is 2009. You, the blamer should be the one with excuses, not me (don’t worry Sierra Club members, you do get to yell at me later on). Anyway, it was the peak of summer, rather the beginning of summer 2009, and I decided to permanently switch plastic bottles with metal water cans/bottles.  I was on my way to King’s Canyon National Park and decided to stop by at a Wal Mart and check out any metal water bottles they might have. After searching for a while, I didn’t find any – but I did find the nemesis of my anti-plastics dream, “Ozark Trail Vacuum Bottle Termo”.

To be fair, they did not claim to be “green”, “sustainable” or anything sundry and Verde.

Since , I had no metal bottles I bought the flask and luckily/unluckily did not get to use it during my trip. At King’s Canyon, I managed to buy an SNHA (Sequoia Natural History Association) stainless steel water bottle for premium, hoping I had donated extra for a good cause. A bit troublesome was the fact that the “green” bottle I purchased had a plastic cap…more on that later.

Back home, I opened up my flask thinking I was going to fill her up with cool water and take advantage of it’s “flaskiness” if you will.

What do you think hit me the moment I opened up the flash for a good rinse?

A much less than tolerable, pungent dirty plastic smell that almost burned my nose emanated!

Excuse the drama, but the smell was terrible. I was taken aback, since that is not what I had anticipated from the inside of an “Ozark Trail” product – I have purchased and used many of their camping/outdoor products, as much as an urban boy pretending to be quite the woodsman can..

I looked inside with utmost repugnant curiosity to find this: A plastic strap of some sort meant to be tied so that the lid and flask could be held together. This is where our case study part comes in:

Ozark Trail – A Walmart Brand

A cursory research quickly took me to the root of my problems, at least with regards to this poor flask design anyway. “Ozark Trail” has nothing to do with “The Ozark Trail” and is not an independent company of outdoors-leaning, Prius-driving, energy bar-eating, bikers. It is just a Wal Mart brand. And it is true “Pay, and you get what you paid for”.

In keeping with Wal Mart’s bizarre traditions for the cheap, the Ozark Trail Vacuum Bottle is packaged in a cuboid, with an L-shaped cut-out, so that you can “see” the flask before you buy it, just in case, you have never seen a flask before, or have never de-frocked a flask from it’s fully covered packaging, or have been extremely dissatisfied with photos adorning the outsides of commodity packaging. Take a look at a rather ugly, but functional rendering:


As a result of this weird packaging, things like straps cannot be left loosely around the bottle – which brings us to another question: Why not pre-assemble the strap? Why bother with all this after all?

As a result of the space disadvantage, and in my opinion, oversight on the pre-assembly possibility, the strap was left inside the flask. Here, the strap dutifully emanated such a stench that the flask was practically unusable unless you went way beyond the “rinse with soapy water” before use.

Packaging your design – Design Considerations

1. Before you launch your product, package it and unpack it and use it. Also, give the packaged versions to two types of people – those you expect to typically use it, and those you expect not to use it! Yes, with enough enticement people who would not normally take to a product might and will take to it. They may also show you how your product and it’s packaging go together, and possibly some of the faults lying under there.

2. Your packaging does not have to be fancy – L-shaped cuts would make sense in products which are not as inoculate as flasks. Keep it simple, for your own benefit.

3. If you really want to show people how your product looks or works, leave a tethered, unpackaged version lying around on display shelves.

4. Consider fully pre-asembling your products. This way, your customers don’t have to buy your flask or whatever it is that you sell and either run the risk of either losing it 5 minutes after they buy it (I can’t find the strap anymore!) or have to find tools or cultivate make-shift tools to assemble your product before using it.

5. Worst of all, try to ensure that someone doesn’t have to bleach your product clean before they use it.

A product is not full by itself – it is full in the way it is designed, made, assembled, packaged and sold. A failure to pay attention to one of these areas will lead to misfits such as the “Ozark Trail Vacuum Bottle”.

Happy designing!

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Design nightmares with a simple task – a tale of PBWiki, Spreadsheets, Googles, Gadgets, Mashups and other “tools”

July 24th, 2009 • UncategorizedNo Comments »

I love my graduate applicants group. I love my PB-Wiki page as well (and unlike the Subaru guy, most of my loving ends there). I have been planning to start an ambitious project that would help archive our group’s messages to provide future prospective students with resources that they could benefit from.

As a result, I simply wanted a spreadsheet on the wiki site itself, that would motivate me and possibly future volunteers to our wiki site. And there launched an afternoon of adventure in the land of Internet Gobbledygook of mashables, Google Gadgets, Google Docs, Google s*it (yes, they want to be in that too), numsum, dim-sum, and everything in between.

There is almost no simplicity associated with any of these online spreadsheet tools that are heavy on promise and poor on performance. It is one thing to come close to even comprehending what they are saying. It is quite something else to actually apply this on to your website. Among other things that can go wrong:

1. You will never find any documentation and will totally fail on some tools.

2. You will never get some tools to work.

3. You will get some tools but with 10 cells in your spreadsheet and woebegone if you try to increase the size.

The Solution: Two scores and hundred minutes later (alright I exaggerate, but so do politicians), I figured on a very simple, elegant solution from the loser of the day, the 29% lower revenue guy, the 9% decrease in stock price guy, the ingrate of the NASDAQ, and overall champion of evil – Microsoft.

I copied over my group’s database table from Yahoo! Groups, “special pasted” it in Excel 2007 and pasted it back to my Wiki page and lo and behold, I now have a working table! PBWiki knows it’s a table cause of all the kind html that Excel donates, and my life is now back to its elegant simplicity.

My Design Lesson – I will always remember to K.I.S.S. – Keep It Simple Stupid!


1. For general irritation and inutility – Google Gadgets and their designers. Google the link yourself! :p

2. For my pbwiki page:

3. For my group page for no better reason than to send you there:

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A design challenge or a mole hill that looked like a mountain? – Flash Movies and the Firefox Browser

May 31st, 2009 • The DesignAbly Story, Uncategorized, Web DesignNo Comments »

One of the main aims for Designably is to serve as an online portal for free design and engineering education. The goals are lofty, I know, but I wanted to throw content out there, as much as a single guy with ADD can :).  And, with this aim, I downloaded “Question Writer”, a nice little software that helps you create simple multiple choice tests. It took me about 20 minutes or so to think through a few questions and create a test. I was able to publish it out to html in no time.

Pleased with myself, I uploaded it, tested it, and then – decided to circumscribe my site’s basic css design around it. A few hoops later, I decided to use a server side include for the quiz. Then, disaster struck!

The test contained in an Adobe Shockwave Flash Object loaded just fine on IE and even on Chrome. But Firefox and Opera would not do be me any such favors. Specifically, the flash quiz loaded too small as you can see in this image (opens in new window):

I spent a few hours blaming my CSS for it. I went through the sheet up and down, left and right..well you get the picture. And then, I scrubbed the html high and low…I finally landed on this website:

After tussling with everything, I came across the “Damned if you do, Damned if you don’t” solution.

1.  If according to the standards you included:

<!DOCTYPE html PUBLIC "-//W3C//DTD XHTML 1.0 Transitional//EN"

then Firefox told you to go stuff it that it was not going to allow flash objects to a reasonable site.

2. If on the other hand,  if you violate the first thing in Web standards, then of course, things work out. That is, you either delete that line above the html tag, or comment it out. Life’s like that I suppose.

Anyway, here are the end results:

I guess you could say it was a “mole hill” and not a mountain. However, it did piss me off to Kingdom come.

What kind of a browser would demand you violate web standards to allow you to play a simple animation?

And guess what, it still won’t work in Opera…!

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