Diamandini: 120 kilos of sylphlike robot

There’s something about the word ‘robot’ that, despite my understanding of the more sophisticated forms of interactive design, still conjures up images of a metallic, bleeping creature. Diamandini, an interactive robotic artwork currently on show for the London Design Festival and the Digital Design Weekend, couldn’t be further from that image.

Diamandini was created by artist and interface designer Dr Mari Velonaki, working with a team of roboticists, electronics designers and programmers.  With her porcelain-like skin and flowing Victorian dress, Diamandini is almost ghostly in appearance and yet entrancingly human.  And despite her sylphlike proportions and unrealistically slender waist, she weighs a whopping 120 kilos – as became abundantly clear when she finally arrived off the plane from Australia and our operations team had to transport her specially-built case to the Digital Studio.

Shortly after Diamandini’s arrival, Mari flew in from Australia along with Dr David Rye, the team’s robotics systems designer and co-founder (with Mari) of the Centre for Social Robotics.  They have both been programming for the last three days to get her ready for her first public appearance in the UK, supported by the Australian Research Council, the Centre for Social Robotics/Australian Centre for Field Robotics, University of Sydney and the National Institute for Experimental Arts, College of Fine Arts, University of New South Wales.

I had the pleasure of watching Mari and David prepare Diamandini for her debut, and I also got to look up her voluminous skirts and see the mechanism that makes all of her movements possible.

‘Her movements are part choreographed, part interactive,’ Mari explained to me.  Cameras hooked up to the ceiling provide Diamandini with her perception of where people are in relation to her, and she uses a decision mechanism to move according to her awareness of the space around her and the length of time that people are nearby.

Mari, a self-professed technophobe, used a bust from World War II as her inspiration for Diamandini’s form because she wanted to make a robot that ‘doesn’t look like technology’.  Diamandini’s hollow shell is made by 3D lithography and is plastic, but Mari didn’t stop there.  She used spray-on ceramic material to make the robot look more sculptural.

Diamandini is in her third year of development of a five-year collaborative research project.  Eventually she will be able to move her arms at the shoulder and elbow joints to give her a new dimension of interaction with spectators.  She will also be able to distinguish between and respond differently to kinds of touch such as a stroke, a poke, or a tap.  Mari hopes this will further the project’s aim of exploring intimate human-robot interactions.  ‘It will help us to better understand what is socially acceptable physical human-machine interaction,’ she says.

Diamandini is certainly attracting attention now: visitors to the V&A have been pausing to observe her and step closer and further away as it becomes clear that her movements respond to what they are doing.  As she glides across the reception area of the Sackler Centre, almost appearing to float on air, her graceful movements deepen our understanding of what robotics can be.

Mari and David will be hosting a free, behind-the-scenes workshop in the Digital Studio on every day of the London Design Festival (14-21 September) so visitors can find out more about how Diamandini was developed and even help script some new behaviours that will be added to the next phase of the project.

Diamandini herself is on show in the Digital Studio and Sackler Centre reception from 14-21 September for the London Design Festival and in Room 50a of the Medieval & Renaissance Galleries on 22-23 September for the Digital Design Weekend.

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