Robot Ludens (2017- in progress)

Playing Alive and Playing Dead


Robots are non-living objects that are able to play alive. Through bio-inspired design and behavior, they can provoke an interpretative change in the audience, shifting their perception of machines from non-living objects to living entities. This work considers two different facets of a machine’s lifecycle. In one scene a robot is playing alive, and in the other, a second robot is playing dead.

This installation is a diptych that juxtaposes two pairs of interacting devices: a spider-like robot and a 27″ monitor. The two screens are placed horizontally on top of a table, each hosting a small spider-like robot. The two monitors display the same background image, which depicts the corner of a room, where a 2D character moves around. The virtual character represents a spider’s shadow, and it interacts with the robot through the touchscreen interface.

In one of the panels, the robot is playing alive and walking in an area of the monitor that represents the “floor” of the virtual world. This robot engages with the virtual shadow, which moves around playfully trying to catch the robot. In the second panel, the monitor displays the same virtual environment as in the first, except that it is vertically rotated. The robot is turned off and lies on its back “playing dead” while its shadow is slowly changing its outline around the inert machines.

The interactions between the two couples of machines start when the audience touches any of the screens. With this input, the system runs for one minute, which is the time it takes for the shadow of the “dead spider” to complete a rotation cycle (60 seconds). Afterward, it goes back to a state of repose, where the robots are immobilized, and the monitors produce a noisy image with the message “touch to restart”. After 40 repetitions, the monitor of the living robot shuts again, this time which the message “change batteries”. After the robot’s batteries are changed, the cycle restarts.

New version coming soon!

Technical Details

The robots used in this project are adaptations the robotic toy Hexabug Spider which is controlled using an Infrared (IR) remote controller. The robot can receive four commands via the IR remote, move forward, move backward, rotate clockwise, and rotate counter-clockwise. The robots have been modified by adding stylus pen tips to the feet of the robot and the top of the robot's head. The stylus pen tips are electrically connected to one another to allow for the flow of current between stylus tips; this allows for capacitive touchscreens to detect touches by each leg of the robot and any touches made by the head of the robot when it is upside down. As the robot walks on the screen, the multi-touch interface written in Java recognizes the position of its legs and estimates the robot’s central location and the robot's heading. Each PC runs a Java program using Processing libraries which provides the interactive behavior between the robot and the virtual shadow. The desired robot commands are communicated through serial via a USB cable from the Java program to an Arduino Nano, which is in turn connected to the robot’s original IR remote controller. The robot is powered by three 1.5-volt coincell batteries, which provide a lifetime of approximately 45 minutes if the robot is in constant motion.

The virtual shadows are sprites, 2D characters, integrated into a larger scene. Sprites are composed of cycles of images, in which the position of the character changes frame by frame, and gives the illusion of continuous and animated movement



Michael Di Perna- Robot control, robot-computer interaction, computers synchronization

Disrael Camargo - Processing environment (images generation)

Stephen Menzies–Development of shadow’s sprites

Mailis Rodrigues–Transformation of sprites into grid

Robot Cut- Oriented the selection of robots

Natasha Vesper-Register of the work with photos and videos

Sponsored by Hexagram 






Concordia University

Dr. Bill Vorn

Dr. Luis Rodrigues and HYCONS lab

Dr. Mia Consalvo

Gavin Kenneally






2017, ZKM Open Codes