V&A Dundee

Bubble blowing robot unveiled in museum

V&A Dundee has unveiled an industrial robot that has been programmed to blow bubbles in the upper hall of the museum.

Soap Opera has been created by Andrea Anner and Thibault Brevet, founders of the non-industrial robot practice AATB, which specialises in transforming industrial robots into playful installations.

During their research they studied how bubbles have historically been used to symbolise the fragile nature of life and human creativity. Depictions of bubbles can be found in numerous European paintings including works by Jean-Baptiste-Siméon Chardin and Édouard Manet. Rembrandt even included a soap bubble in a painting of Cupid, thought to symbolise the fragility of love.

The installation consists of a UR10 robotic arm designed to work alongside humans in factories performing tasks that require precision and reliability, such as unloading large items from pallets. But instead of an industrial tool, it has been fitted with a wand and circular hoop which dips into a tank of soapy liquid.

The arm has been programmed to slowly move into position before speeding up and tracing an arc to produce bubbles. Despite each movement being identical, every bubble is different and lasts just a few seconds before bursting in mid-air.

Soap Opera encourages people to look differently at robotics and consider how they can be used to create playful experiences, beyond their industrial origins.

Andrea Anner said: “We wanted to bring the idea that bubbles are a metaphorical symbol for the transience of life into the 21st century by removing the human in the act of blowing bubbles.

“Instead of a strictly practical repetitive movement, we’ve programmed an industrial robot to carefully wave a wand in the air over and over again. It’s mesmerising to watch with each movement performed perfectly but each bubble unique, reacting to tiny changes in the initial conditions.”

Thibault Brevet added: “We want people to be entertained and enjoy watching this fleeting moment and also to consider the interaction between the digital controls of the robot and the organic nature of the bubble which prevents us from knowing what to expect each time.”

The robotic arm will remain in V&A Dundee’s upper hall until shortly before the opening of the museum’s next major exhibition,Hello, Robot. Design Between Human and Machine, on November 2. The robot is expected to produce around 38,400 bubbles in that time.

Lauren Bassam, Project Curator, said: “Our next major exhibition Hello, Robot asks big questions about our relationship with robots, how our interactions with them have developed over time and what the future holds.

“This installation helps us to look at robots differently. As well as prompting us to consider the extraordinary creativity that can be achieved between human and machine, Soap Opera is also about simply having fun.”