Interview: David McGoran, on building a revolutionary new creative industry using robotics

The co-founder of Bristol-based Rusty Squid on what it means to run a studio for experimental robotic art and design
21st November 2017

From a corner of a unique puppetry studio on Bristol’s Spike Island, a new creative industry is blooming by challenging the very foundations of the way in which we see robotics and technology in our society.

Named Rusty Squid, the team based here are the creators of the fantastical robotic spiders that were a part of Arcadia, the soft robotic hearts that can be held whilst pulsing in time with its users own beat and walls of animatronic books that open and close in response to the movement of its viewers.

Robotic spiders: Rusty Squid designed and engineered the robotic spiders that were
able to crawl along a wire tightrope as part of the spectacular Arcadia

 

Rusty Squid’s original founder, David McGoran, a professional dancer, performing artist and puppeteer-cum-robotics engineer grew up fascinated by the way in which movement could trigger emotion in people.

“We have come together to explore the potential for hijacking and repurposing robotic technology as a form of expression rather than a tool”

 

As a child, his fascination led him to stay up late into the night designing pedal-powered blimps and submarines, pulling out motors, getting things to move differently and have their own little behaviours.

But with a love of the arts, he was torn throughout his life and career by society’s wish to separate and segregate the paths of engineering, design and art.

After telling his story this month at the UK’s biggest TEDx event, TEDxBristol, we discovered he was setting up a brand new studio in Bristol to break down those barriers and promote a revolutionary new way of approaching robotics and a new industry in itself.

Not only that but the Rusty Squid team was keen to get the South West’s engineers and entrepreneurs on board, so we headed to the studio to find out more.

TechSPARK: So, what is Rusty Squid and how would you describe it to someone who’s never heard of it before?

David McGoran: We’re a team of robotic engineers, designers and artists that have come together to explore the potential for hijacking and repurposing robotic technology as a form of expression rather than a tool.

“[Our projects are] test beds for us to test out how to integrate artists, engineers and designers effectively”

 

We suspect that sometime this century, probably within the next 20 years, there will be a company that emerges that’s on the scale of Disney or Pixar – on both an economic and cultural impact scale – that uses robotics as their medium rather than film. So rather than utilitarian, it’s fundamentally used as a means of expression.

Robotics as an art form: Highlights from TechSPARK’s tour
around the Rusty Squid studio

 

We think that different cultures will all have different styles – and in the same way that music has different genres there will be different genres of robot expression and different generations will have different genres too.

We think it’s going to be the art form that defines this century.

TS: Wow! So why are you called Rusty Squid? Is there any history behind the name?

DM: We never set out to start a company, we were just a bunch of researchers, students, academics and artists that were working on interesting projects.

But the projects got bigger and bigger, we needed a budget, we needed a bank account, we needed insurance and suddenly we were like ‘oh we’re starting a company’.

“We don’t think integrating our engineering design can be a top-down process”

 

The name kind of just emerged over time. I think it was a fascination with the alien nature of cephalopods. They’re so beautiful but so alien – and the fact that they have distributed intelligence so each of the tentacles in each cephalopod holds their own brain. There’s no way a central brain can coordinate that level of sophisticated movement.

In a similar way, we don’t think integrating our engineering design can be a top-down process, it has to be a bottom-up process and everyone’s got to take a highly invested role in making sure the work works.

As for rust, it has always been interesting to us just because it’s human made, but yet it’s also organic. It reminds us that our artefact world is actually as much a part of nature as everything else.

That’s one of the things that we really want to challenge is this notion that technology is outside of nature – which is a very popular notion – but what else is it if it didn’t come from the same primordial ooze as the rest of us really? If it’s not a gift from the gods then it’s as natural as anything and I think that’s really important for us to understand if we’re going to be able to deal with this century effectively.

TS: You’ve worked on some fantastic robotic, art and design projects over the years, but these are part of a longer-term goal to better integrate the engineering art and design worlds. Can you tell us a bit more about that? 

DM: Yes, the projects we’re known for like the spiders, book hive and a heart in your hands – they are really only test beds for us to test out how to integrate artists, engineers and designers effectively and how to reappropriate robotic technology as an art form.

There’s a lot of talk about art and tech, and design and tech, and there are lots of people sitting around having coffee, but if you really get artists, engineers and designers to work together for a long time the gulf between those cultures starts to become pretty apparent. When the pressure is on and the budget is tight everyone retreats to their comfortable identity.

“The real project that I’m passionate about is the tools and processes that we’ve been building”

 

They have very different value sets, so engineers value something being accurate and functional that won’t break and is built to spec and on time. They’re answerable to physics and they’re paid well if they do that well. Whereas artists will value the meaning behind something and designers will value if it’s of value to a culture or a particular set of individuals.

Each of these things not going to plan can represent failure on a project but they’re very different types of failure and that creates an incredibly deep rift – not necessarily visible conflict but a discomfort that makes it really hard for an artist, an engineer and a designer to work effectively together.

This is a problem that has come up before in the last century a number of times. It came up with Disney and came up with Stan Winston who’s basically the Walt Disney of animatronics, it came up with the puppeteer behind the Muppets, Jim Henson – because they were all trying to do something similar which is to get highly technical people, highly creative people and a design practice to work together and they all solve the problem in different ways.

Jim Henson solved the problem by being this incredible translator between all the different disciplines – but when he died the studio fell apart because people went back to their entrenched corners.

However, Disney wanted to make himself redundant. He was also the translator so he put all his effort and resources in the building of a unique set of tools.

One of the tools he created that’s not that well known is the storyboard. It had the key frames of the movement, it had colour swatches, it had the script, it had a notation for sound synchronisation and it had a notation for camera movements. The entire team needed that tool to get the job done and through that tool they were able to integrate.

So the real project that I’m passionate about is the tools and processes that we’ve been building behind the scenes to help integrate our team.

TS: So what could we learn by better engaging the engineering, design and art worlds?

DM: It’s really interesting because now in the studio we have a really strict design practice, which means we’re always testing with the public and we never make a big decision before we’ve actually seen how the public receive it.

I think that the robot engineering community is starting to get itself into a lot of trouble and needs help from the creative community. They spend all this money on these incredibly sophisticated machines without any design process whatsoever.

Maybe they do a few seconds of testing –  but they take these incredible multi-million-pound machines out to the public and they just fail socially and emotionally.


Tales of a robot:
a Rusty Squid robot concept storyboard
 

I spent some time at different labs around the country introducing engineers to this rich wealth of knowledge that comes from the movie arts. For example, we’ve worked on a notation system with Bath Uni who were researching the social and emotional cues of blinking and eye movements.

I asked them if they had looked at Stan Winston’s notation or Disney’s notation and they had no clue that there was this enormous wealth of knowledge out there and they were just so excited.

Another example surrounds the very choice of gears, algorithms, sensors and motors that creates the social and emotional context of what the machine is. The fact that most robots are built with geared D.C. motors – and they’ve all got gears so they’re fully stiff, with no ability to go passive. This means they’re like zombies, which are terrifying.

Now you can mode passivity and create the illusion of it, but it’s hugely computational and expensive. So what we’re doing is going back to the drawing board and designing sensors, algorithms, motors and systems as if to say: ‘if we didn’t need robots to be super powerful, accurate and repeatable, if our value set was social and emotional engagement, what sensors would we develop? What motors would we develop?’

It’s that ability to change tension, as in acting, in puppetry, in animation – you start with that before anything as it’s our fight, flight, freeze – it’s our emotional foundation.

And none of that exists in the engineering community, so I think we can bring along a lot to that world.

TS: So, you took part in TEDxBristol this month – what inspired you to get involved?

DM: We’ve been pretty quiet over the last five or six years and although many people know of the projects, they don’t know it’s us that, for example, made the spiders for Arcadia. So I think just taking the time to tell our story is really important and to say that we’re not just doing this for the hell of it. It’s not just cool tech art stuff – we actually are motivated culturally and politically and we feel that it’s really valuable.

As I said in the talk we’re in for a bit of a rough ride this century. Even the just stuff that exists in robot labs today gets out and isn’t developed any further, it’s going to be enough to send our civilisation into an existential shock.

“We abandoned this thing on the streets of Bristol, in the winter, in the rain and sleet and it went on adventures”

 

It’s really unsettling and our traditional compasses and maps of how we make sense of the world separate humanity, nature and art, their identity is in opposition to technology, and technologists think that artists are these woolly navel gazers that are out of touch with reality.

These are the divisions that I think are really dangerous going into this century and that mindset needs to be shaken up.

TS: You were also recently filmed for a Channel 4 documentary called ‘Trust Me I’m A Robot’ which is due to be aired in the next couple of weeks. It’s all a little bit top secret at the moment but what can you give us a bit of a sneak preview?

DM: It’s a 48-minute documentary that follows us designing and developing a little character robot that is able to engage socially and emotionally with people. It was a really quick three-month build including all the AI and all the mechanisms – and actually two of those months we were just exploring weight and then form, shape and feel.

Then we built all these crazy prototypes, starting with puppets, then we went to remote control animatronics and then we put the sensors in until we had just a month left to build the final prototypes.

Once it was built, we abandoned this thing on the streets of Bristol in the winter, in the rain and sleet and it went on adventures. We literally walked away and left it all to itself to see how people would engage with it.

Everything happened to it, it got mauled by a dog, we had some kids kidnap it and try to take it home – but it also got a lot of love. A lot of people would just suspend their disbelief and get carried away in the emotion rather than be frightened of it being a robot.

Check out the trailer for ‘Trust Me I’m a Robot’ in the video below:

 

Many people feel like most robots are meant to be tools that are trying to trick us that they’re something else. But if our society could see that the intention behind the work is just to entertain, to move, to enlighten or to create meaning then people will embrace these machines into their lives a lot more and it’s going to be quite a profound, creative, cultural thing that happens.

A lot of technology gets adopted into society because somebody finds a social or creative use for it. Like the internet or computers, for example, people use computers not as adding machines but as social machines.

The same sort of thing will happen with robotics and it will really take off when the entrepreneurs stop trying to find a practical purpose and start looking at them as cultural phenomena.

TS: So to take all these ideas to the next level, you’re going to be building a new Rusty Squid studio. When will hope to launch this facility?

DM: It’s a big project and we’re in the final stages of building regulations, working through some internal designs with an architect. And if all goes well, it will be a construction site for two years.

Rusty Squid Studios: plans are in full swing to create this revolutionary
new space for artists, designers and engineers to come together

 

Not only does the new building need to be renovated, but an entirely new building beside it needs to be built and then three flats on top, which will be used as residents’ flats. We’ll then be inviting lead artists, engineers and designers to come and form a parallel ensemble alongside us. So we’ll have the core team, our interns and then leading experts from around the world for a temporary period of time staying in the flats to immerse themselves and help develop our tools and processes.

It’s going to be really important for us to expand into our own space and have that equal respect between artists, engineers and designers – have them paid equally and valued right through the entire design process.

TS: As an artist, engineer or designer – how do you get involved?

DM: We are a startup right now so everything is agile and dynamic and high risk, so it’s important that we find people that have an appetite for that.

We’re not offering standard ordinary jobs, we are looking for people who are shipbuilders rather than sailors at this stage.

We hope to bring in some core funding, stop taking on new contracts and go internal. We’ll then be putting a call out for a lead robotic engineer, a lead designer and a lead artist to come and join our team.

“The key thing that we are going to be on the hunt for is entrepreneurs who are interested in joining the core team”

 

We’re looking at an initial six-month incubation period in late 2018 and then if all goes well and we can convince our patrons and funders, we’ll take that to a three-year incubation period which will take us into the new building.

We’ll also be putting a call out for interns who already have a disciplinary practice but want to want to soften the cellular wall that they’re in to be less insulated.

Intern to integral: James Dalby joined the Rusty Squid team as an intern and,
as well as dabbling in the robotics side of things, is now making a film documenting
all of the team’s work

 

These could be roboticists who want to learn a bit of puppetry and learn how to move, artists that want to learn a bit of programming or designers that want to learn a bit of a bit of mechanism design and algorithm design.

But the key thing that we are going to be on the hunt for is entrepreneurs who are interested in joining the core team – and I do mean entrepreneurs, because it’s such a complex thing that we’re doing.

Robotics alone is really complex but integrating algorithms and mechanisms and electronics and hardware takes a particular type of person.

As our business is quite unique and we’re pioneering a new industry, there’s no easy or clear pathway – the requests that we get are all over the map from all kinds of industries. So we really do need people that are interested in trailblazing and coming on board in quite a substantial way.

My dream would be to find a business partner who would be interested in having a stake in the company. Someone who really enjoys strategising and mapping out commercial and financial pathways because we’ve got some really interesting ones that we’re in the midst of.

We’ll also be looking for a managing director who has enough understanding and empathy for engineers, designers, artists and robotics who can be that translator and deal with a team that has a very diverse culture.

TS: And are there any other ways people can get involved?

DM: Yeah, if you if you’ve got a bit of money kicking around that you don’t know what to do with and you want to help our civilisation navigate this century and challenge our culture that continues to divide art, engineering and design, then get in touch – we make small amounts of money go a very long way.

Thanks to David for taking the time to chat to us about his plans for Rusty Squid, to find out more or get in touch, take a look at the Rusty Squid website or follow them on Twitter here: @RustySquidLtd.