Part of the permanent collection at the National Gallery of Canada (NGC), The Table is a collaborative work by Canadian artist Max Dean, born in Leeds (England) in 1949, and American artist Raffaello D’Andrea, born in Pordenone (Italy) in 1967. Developed between 1984 and 2001, the interactive installation includes the following equipment: aluminum table, motors, wheels, motion control system, radio modem, vision system, computer, camera and lights.
An aluminum table, which is able to move autonomously, is installed in a stunningly lit room, with white walls and a bright, matte red floor. A camera, suspended from the ceiling and connected to a computer in the control room, continually captures an overview of the floor, the presence of visitors and their movement along with the movement of the table. A motion control system, concealed under the table, receives information from the computer’s control software transmitted by a radio modem which sends a signal to an antenna located under the table. Each tubular leg encloses a system of omnidirectional wheels and a motor. The movement of the wheels is activated by the motors, and the table tries to establish contact with a chosen visitor. The table interacts with him/her by turning on its axis, by rolling towards the person or by moving backwards if the visitor approaches it. The chosen spectator becomes a performer, an object of attention of the table and also of other visitors. It is up to the chosen spectator to decide whether the table is to react or not. When the interaction becomes weak or nonexistent, the table selects a new person with whom to interact.
The Table is an autonomous robot with an automatic mechanized system able to react to unexpected movement or obstacles and to carry out one or more tasks by executing a program in a given environment. As is the case with most “prototypical” robotic works, or single editions, the basic physical components can be pre-manufactured then modified or custom built to meet specific needs. In the case of The Table, the control system and its algorithms were entirely conceived by Max Dean and Raffallo D’Andrea. All the components, including the wheels and motors, were also custom manufactured, giving the installation a unique character. The singular characteristic of this work lies in the robotic nature of the table and it’s capacity to operate in an environment specifically designed for it. For example, the shade of red painted on the floor is directly linked to the effective functioning of the camera and the control software. Also, the space lights used in the room produce a light that prevents the creation of shadows, which the software could mistakenly interpret as a physical presence.
Due to the complexity of its components, operation, and interactivity between the table and the visitor (interactive behaviour), this work required a thorough documentation. The NGC thus proceeded to install the work with Max Dean and his assistant engineers, to specify the table’s ideal functioning and outline in detail the work’s components, drafting an installation manual enriched with visual documentation. During the installation, questions relevant to the long-term conservation of the work were addressed and different conservation options were considered and documented, specifically concerning the wheels, the computer’s operating system, and the components most susceptible to deterioration. In addition, the work underwent important physical modifications in 2008. The wheels were improved and the batteries replaced in order to lighten the weight of the table, which surpassed the wheels’ support capacity.
My work is focused on the creation of systems that leverage technological innovations, scientific principles, advanced mathematics, algorithms, and the art of design in unprecedented ways, with an emphasis on advanced motion control.
By their very nature, these creations require a team to realize. Many are enabled by the research I conduct with my graduate students. Many are also the fruit of collaborations with architects, entrepreneurs, and artists.
My hope is that these creations inspire us to rethink what role technology should have in shaping our future.
Spanning academics, business and the arts, Raffaello D’Andrea’s career is built on his ability to bridge theory and practice: He is Professor of Dynamic Systems and Control at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology (ETH) in Zurich, where his research redefines what autonomous systems are capable of. He is also co-founder of Kiva Systems (recently acquired by Amazon), a robotics and logistics company that develops and deploys intelligent automated warehouse systems. In addition, he is an internationally-exhibited new media artist, best known for the Robotic Chair (Ars Electronica, ARCO, London Art Fair, National Gallery of Canada) and Flight Assembled Architecture (FRAC Centre, France).
If there is a difference between having ideas and knowing which ones are possible, there is an even greater difference between knowing which ideas are possible and knowing how to turn those into physical, working realities. Raff believes that this kind of knowledge comes best through hands-on experience and a deep understanding of the fundamental principles at work.
In retrospect, Raff considers himself lucky to have made it to adulthood. As a child he was fascinated by science and the physical world, and had a penchant for putting himself into his own scientific experiments. He learned about water pressure by jumping into a swimming pool with bricks attached to his legs and a garden hose attached to his mouth; knowledge of aerodynamic stability – or lack thereof – was gained by jumping from a rooftop with a lawn umbrella; he created hydrogen gas by electrolysis, and in the process flooded his basement with chlorine gas; the laws of inductance and Faraday’s law were painfully learned through the use of batteries, transformers, and his mouth as a poor-man’s voltmeter; innumerable experiments with fireworks, flammable liquids, gunpowder, and live ammunition resulted in several unplanned haircuts, and an appreciation for the incredible amount of energy stored in chemical bonds.
Raff combined his love for science with his need to create by studying Engineering Science at the University of Toronto, where he received the Wilson Medal as the top graduating student in 1991. Then, after cycling from Vancouver to Toronto on a mountain bike, he moved west to begin graduate studies in the area of Systems and Control at the California Institute of Technology (Caltech), where he worked on two separate projects: very theoretical research on the optimal design of systems, and very applied research on the use of pulsed air injection to eliminate instabilities in jet engines. After receiving his PhD in 1997, he joined the Cornell faculty as an assistant professor, where he was a founding member of the Systems Engineering program, and where he established robot soccer – a competition featuring fully autonomous robots – as the flagship, multidisciplinary team project. In addition to pioneering the use of semi definite programming for the design of distributed control systems, he went on to lead the Cornell Robot Soccer Team to four world championships at international RoboCup competitions in Sweden, Australia, Italy, and Japan.
While on leave from Cornell, from 2003 to 2007, he co-founded Kiva Systems, where he led the systems architecture, robot design, robot navigation and coordination, and control algorithms efforts. Kiva has deployed installations worldwide, including a 1,000+ mobile robot system in the United States. By the time Amazon acquired Kiva in May 2012 for 775M dollars, it was a 300-person company with a long customer list that included Walgreens, Staples, and Saks, with more than 30 warehouses deployed across Europe and North America.
Throughout his academic and business career, Raff has collaborated with artists, architects, and engineers to create dynamic sculptures. He has exhibited his work at various international venues, including the Venice Biennale, Ars Electronica, the Smithsonian, and the Spoleto Festival. In addition, his work is in the permanent collections of the National Gallery of Canada (Robotic Chair, Table), the FRAC Centre in France (Flight Assembled Architecture), and the Heinz Nixdorf Museum in Germany (Blind Juggler).
After being appointed professor at ETH Zurich in 2007, Raff established a research program that combined his broad interests and cemented his hands-on teaching style. His team engages in cutting edge research by designing and building creative experimental platforms that allow them to explore the fundamental principles of robotics, control, and automation. His creations include the Flying Machine Arena, where flying robots perform aerial acrobatics, juggle balls, balance poles, and cooperate to build structures; the Distributed Flight Array, a flying platform consisting of multiple autonomous single propeller vehicles that are able to drive, dock with their peers, and fly in a coordinated fashion; The Balancing Cube, a dynamic sculpture that can balance on any of its edges or corners; Blind Juggling Machines that can juggle balls without seeing them, and without catching them. In addition, he is collaborating with scientists, engineers, and wingsuit pilots to create an actively controlled suit that will allow humans to take off and land at will, to gain altitude, even to perch, while preserving the intimacy of wingsuit flight. Playful and creative, each of these projects support his team’s natural instincts to be curious, explore and discover. And yet they also serve as real experimental platforms for developing new practical technologies.