Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Atronach's Eye: Case Build

I took a break from muscles to give the old mechanical eyeball a much-needed upgrade. The changes made in this round of development mostly affected the case. For more information about how the internals of Atronach's eye work, click the “Project Atronach” tag in the right-hand sidebar to see all previous posts.

A view of the internals mounted to the new case, just before final assembly.
The original case was a quick prototype, thrown together with cardboard and ice pop sticks. It was kind of embarrassing, but it did provide a good platform to see how all the moving parts worked and what improvements might be needed. The new version is mostly particle board and linoleum, with some other wooden bits (there are still ice pop sticks in there, actually, you just can't see them now).

Cutting the case.
The particle board became the front and back faces of the case, which I cut out by hand using a rotary tool with a cylindrical engraving cutter bit. This was rather tedious, and the results were imperfect. I wish, in particular, that the gear teeth were more symmetrical (I also wish I had a CNC machine). At least it's not functioning as a gear. It's structural art. Ssssshhh. I carved the lettering into the front face using a spherical engraving cutter, and I'm very happy with how that turned out.

Speaking of that lettering, it's derived from the legends of golems, which Atronach's name obliquely references[1]. These might be some of the earliest stories about artificial life, and there are additional reasons why I find them meaningful that probably deserve their own blog post. The original golems of Jewish folklore often had something written on their foreheads, such as the word emet (truth) used here. Not to mention that Hebrew script is gorgeous.


For the outer wall of the case, I wanted something that I could form into a curve, so I bought a single linoleum tile. It came with adhesive on the back, which I dissolved with vegetable oil and washed off. The wall is made from three pieces of linoleum, joined together at the seams with 24-gauge beading wire. Initially, the wall wanted to “peak” at the seams and go flat in between them, instead of assuming a nice round shape. I added a piece of stiff plastic (cut from a large zip tie) at each seam to brace it into roundness. I'm quite happy with how this construction technique worked out, as well. However, one does have to be careful when handling this type of linoleum, because the stiff plastic on the back is rather brittle. Bend it gently and don't try to bend it back once the desired shape is reached, or this rear layer will crack. Always drill holes starting from the back side, and leave plenty of margin between your holes and edges or corners. To support the sidewall, I drove wire nails up through the back face of the case. There is an inner ring and an outer ring of nails, and the sidewall slips snugly between them.

A closeup of the finished sidewall.
All of the motors, the ball cradle, etc. are mounted to the back plate of the case with screws now, which gives the structure more rigidity and provides for easy disassembly for repairs or modifications (gasp!). I added some wire hoops inside to provide additional guidance for the "tendons" and prevent them from catching on other parts.  The tendons themselves are now nylon monofilament instead of thread, which I found could fray through rather easily.  I also replaced the battery pack with a wall wart of comparable voltage.

Here's a video of the eye during the final post-assembly test:


The next step will be getting the computer into the loop … either by adding the camera and some video processing algorithms, or by establishing computer control over the motor movements.

Until the next cycle,
Jenny

[1] “Atronach” is used in The Elder Scrolls games as a designator for either elemental creatures or certain types of golems. These are the wizard-built golems typical of fantasy contexts, but they owe their literary origins to these old folk stories.

Sunday, August 24, 2014

Nylon Fishing Line Artificial Muscles VI

I've finally done some characterization of these muscles. My primary goal was to investigate the relationship between the diameter of the secondary coils and various muscle properties/behaviors.

The Test Muscles

I made three rod-coiled test muscles, of different internal diameters determined by the size of the rods on which they were coiled. I attempted to keep other variables constant, including the following:

  • Materials: All muscles were made from Trilene Big Game “Solar Collector” fishing line (50 lb. test, 711 um in diameter), with a single heating element of 10/46 litz wire twisted in.
  • Secondary Coils: I tried to cut the filament to a length that would produce the same number of secondary coils in each muscle when finished (ensuring all muscles would have the same length when at rest). Due to a lack of preciseness in my manufacturing methods, I could not get them quite the same, but corrected for this by reporting relative contraction distance instead of absolute contraction distance in the weight lifting results.
  • Primary Coils: I measured the coiling time required, going at the speed of the drill I was using, before a length of filament would begin to spontaneously form secondary coils. I then used this time as a guide for coiling subsequent muscles, scaling it by the length of filament used. Ideally, this would ensure that each muscle had almost enough tension to begin self-coiling, but not quite. In practice, again, the results were less than precise; for instance, two of the muscles developed a few secondary coils at the top. (I treated these as part of the muscle's “tail”, so they did not affect measurements. However, they show that these muscles ended up with a higher primary coiling tension than the remaining one.)
  • Tension: I used the same 2 lb. weight as a load for each muscle during the coiling process. Unfortunately this does not entirely guarantee a consistent tension, because some of the nylon filaments were too long to suspend the weight for all or part of the coiling process – meaning it was acting as more of an anchor, and the force on the line would depend on the weight's friction with the floor as well.
  • Secondary Coil Spacing: When coiling each muscle around its rod, I packed all of the coils as tightly as possible, so that the muscle would be fully contracted when at rest.
  • Annealing: All muscles were annealed at a temperature of 300°F for 20 minutes.
  • Chirality: All muscles were homochiral.

Experimental Setup

The passive spring constant test involved suspending various weights from a muscle and measuring the amount of deformation (stretching) produced. The muscles were not powered for this test.

The weight lifting test was intended to measure each muscle's ability to lift weight under power. One muscle was tested at a time. It received its current through a power MOSFET switched by an ATTiny85 microcontroller. A multimeter was included in the circuit to measure current. I had programmed the ATTiny to read an analog voltage, which I could adjust by turning the dial on a potentiometer. The ATTiny sent a PWM signal to the gate of the transistor, varying the duty cycle based on the value of the analog voltage. I hand-adjusted the value of the potentiometer to get the same (effective) current value for each muscle. The distance through which the weight was lifted was measured at steady-state, after the load had risen as far as was possible for that current.

Results

Passive Spring Constant Tests

Each data set has been fitted with a cubic curve.  A spring constant can be obtained for each muscle by taking the slope of the linear portion of the curve.




Weight Lifting Tests

Each data set has been fitted with a parabolic curve.  The (0,0) data point is assumed.




Summary

Muscle
Coil Diameter
Spring Constant
Optimum Load*
Max. Possible Contraction**
1
4.763 mm
8.63 N/m
32.4 g
22.7%
2
3.175 mm
40.12 N/m
60.3 g
14.3%
3
1 mm
237.62 N/m
82.8 g
11.1%
*Averaged over all currents tested on this muscle
**At highest current tested on this muscle, computed from curve

Conclusions

I am going to emphasize again that I'm not working with the greatest equipment here. Distances moved by all of these muscles were on the order of millimeters, and difficult to measure. Muscles can be reshaped by the heat, making the repeatability of the measurements imperfect. Couple that with the possibility of varying ambient temperatures in the house between test sessions, and you have a recipe for a lot of error. Nonetheless, I hope the data is useful in a rough, qualitative way. I'll posit the following:

  • All else being equal, muscles with a smaller secondary coil diameter have a larger spring constant.
  • Every muscle has an optimum load, a “sweet spot” on the curve, which allows for maximum lift distance when the muscle is powered. Too little weight doesn't stretch the coils far enough apart to provide a working distance, and too much begins to exceed the muscle's strength. I'm sure the optimum loads found for these muscles are dependent on the fact that they all have close-packed secondary coils. It would be interesting to re-try the experiment using muscles that are not fully contracted at rest, and thus have less need to be stretched by the weight.
  • The size of the optimum load increases as the secondary coil diameter decreases. I don't know whether the optimum load is related to the amount of current as well, or is the same regardless of current; the data is too irregular to tell.
  • At a given current, muscles with a large secondary coil diameter, lifting their optimum load, will lift higher than muscles with a small secondary coil diameter, lifting their optimum load. However, note that large-diameter muscles may have access to a smaller range of currents due to the risk of “going flat” (see yesterday's post).

I now have better answers to a couple of questions that have been asked previously:

Q: Once you've made a muscle contract, can you continue to run current through it and hold it in position?
A: Yes! Just be careful not to overheat the muscle. Current values that are tolerated in brief bursts may be enough to make the muscle flatten or go limp if they are applied for too long.

Q: What is the advantage of rod-coiled muscles over self-coiled muscles, or vice versa? What is the best secondary coil diameter?

A: The best diameter depends on your application. As I suspected, muscles with smaller diameters (including the self-coiled ones, which have the smallest diameter possible) can manage heavier weights, but can't lift them as far as large-diameter muscles can lift their optimal lighter weights (though I do wonder how the more tightly coiled muscles would perform if they were annealed with their coils spread out). The new revelation here is that diameter plays in to current requirements as well – large muscles working at their optimum point need less current than small muscles working at theirs.

Until the next cycle,
Jenny

Saturday, August 23, 2014

Homemade Nylon Artificial Muscles V

It's high time to talk about artificial muscles again. I have the long-awaited data from the Weight Lifting Test, but to keep this blog post from getting monstrous, I think I'm going to save that for tomorrow. Today's post will be devoted to a couple of side issues.

It's Not Just about Fishing Line Any More

So far, I've only heard of these muscles being made out of two kinds of nylon monofilament: 1) fishing line and 2) conductive thread with a nylon core. Trimmer line – for weed-eaters – is made of nylon too. And it's thick nylon. Special lines for deep-sea fishing are the only other filaments I've seen that are this stout. So I decided to try it. Behold the super-muscle:

Nylon artificial muscle: the giant edition.
It's made of RINO-TUFF Universal Trimmer Line, manufactured by Jarden Applied Materials. The cross-section of this trimmer line is round (there are no ridges around the outside, as some trimmer lines have).  The diameter is 2.0 mm, which puts the appropriate coiling load at about 5.45 kg (12.0 lb.). After initial twisting, I wound it around a 6.35 mm (0.25 in.) rod and baked it in the toaster oven as usual, though I let it go almost half an hour to make sure it was fully set, since the line is so thick. The heating element is a single enameled copper wire, I would guess 22 gauge.

During my first quick test, the super-muscle lifted 0.454 kg (1 lb.) of dry beans about 1.5 mm. That may not sound like a very impressive distance given the size of the muscle, but it's more than I would expect my other muscles to do with that much weight. It's also possible that the heating element I used was a hindrance; single-stranded copper wire at that thickness has a noticeable springiness of its own that gives the muscle an additional resistance to motion. A more flexible multi-stranded heating element would be preferable, but I haven't tried to make better versions yet; I mainly wanted to see if the trimmer line would respond. Since it seems to be a viable muscle material, I hope to make more of these big guys, and will of course let you all know how that goes.

The Flattening Problem

When rod-coiled muscles are overheated, well before the line melts through they will usually “go flat.” The coils tilt into the plane along which tension is being applied, ruining the muscle's effectiveness as a spring. Something I have been noticing during recent tests is that certain muscles seem to be more prone to going flat than others. Take as an example the one on the right below, which was originally going to be the largest diameter muscle in the Weight Lifting Test … until it spontaneously went flat, while hanging vertically without any load on it, when my apartment got particularly hot one summer afternoon. The other muscles hanging up beside it were not similarly affected.

A healthy rod-coiled muscle (left) compared to a ruined flat one (right).
The muscle that went flat was the largest member of the set, so I thought that perhaps rod-coiled muscles with a larger diameter were more prone to flattening. However, when I started working with the remaining muscles in the Weight Lifting Test, it turned out that things weren't that simple. Of the three muscles, the 1/8” muscle seemed the most prone to flattening (which is why, in the data coming tomorrow, you'll see me using  no currents larger than 40 mA for this muscle … it could barely take that much). It was at least as sensitive to high temperatures as the larger 3/16” muscle, if not more so.

Muscles that “go flat” can be re-annealed to get them back to their correct shape. While this restores their effectiveness (at least temporarily), it does not seem to take away their inherent propensity for going flat. Therefore I wonder if there is some variable in the manufacturing method that makes some muscles more likely to flatten than others. I made efforts to keep the muscles that I used for the Weight Lifting Test identical in all but diameter, but my methods aren't exactly precise, so perhaps some differences crept in. Here are my best thoughts of some things to look at:

1) Amount of tension applied via primary twisting before the muscle is coiled on the rod. I tried to keep this the same between muscles by using the same load and twisting each one for an amount of time proportional to the length of the line. Nonetheless, it's quite likely that they have small differences. I sometimes had to stop early because the line started forming secondary coils before time was up, or appeared about to.
2) Ambient temperature in the environment during primary twisting. I didn't make all the muscles on the same day, so there could be some differences here depending on what the weather was doing.
3) Amount of tension applied during secondary coiling, i.e. initial tightness of coils around the annealing rod.

Until the next cycle,
Jenny

Friday, June 13, 2014

Transistor: A Dream of the End

*** Warning *** This article contains major spoilers that may blunt the impact of the game. If you have not played Transistor and have the slightest shred of interest in doing so, you are not allowed to read this. Go get the game, finish it, and come back later. *** Warning ***

I'm usually a “wait for the sales” type of person, but Transistor is one of the few games I've bought within a couple of weeks of its release. I sprang for it on the strength of its predecessor Bastion, which is excellent (though it hasn't furnished me with any deep lessons that would make fodder for a blog post). And hoo boy, I was not disappointed. Transistor is one of THOSE games. The ones that stay with you for a long time.

Hey, God?  Can the New Jerusalem look a little like Cloudbank?  Maybe?
Apropos of the fact that its protagonist is a singer, Transistor makes skillful use of music and voice to add impact to its story. I was drawn in by the game's premise and beautiful visuals, but I wasn't really sold on it until the first boss fight. As Red confronts one of her nemeses – Sybil, a prominent socialite, now infected by the computerized menace known as the Process – a song begins. It isn't the standard battle fare that advertises excitement or danger. Instead it's slow, quietly intense, and – if you listen to the words – disturbing. As the battle progresses, the quality of the song deteriorates, symbolizing Sybil's descent into inhumanity. In the third round I start to realize that I'm on edge … and it isn't just because Red's health bar is sliding dangerously low, or because Sybil's wall-piercing parasol attack is kind of terrifying. It's because I've been listening to an eerie Borg-like voice wailing “I won't save you” in the background, reminding me exactly what kind of Serious Business I've gotten into. By the time the fight is over, the song is burned into my memory. Sybil had to be dealt with, but her death is not trivial.

One can tell, by this point if not sooner, that Transistor is not a light-hearted game. Maybe I should have taken more warning by that song than I did. Another warning note comes when Red stops at her apartment long enough to eat a meal, then proceeds to lock herself out … somehow, she knows she's not coming back. In the story's last act, the surreal, quiet, wistful beauty of a Fairbank district overrun by the Process hints at a journey toward the end. Nonetheless, I wasn't quite expecting what actually happened.

Red seldom met another living character, but I was able to get acquainted with the city's cast of influential citizens by means of their traces: digital remnants of each individual's personality and skills, safely stored in the memory of the eponymous Transistor. They're a colorful bunch, sometimes flawed, but all important. As Red hauled this precious cargo around the city, I looked forward to finishing the game and restoring them somehow. Even the members of the Camerata – full of hubris, morally gray, and at times personally unpleasant – caught my sympathy. There were little things I could identify with, like Asher's refusal to be seen without his cat, or the childlike glee of discovery that came through in Royce's study notes on the Process. I wanted to save them all.

In the end, I didn't save any of them.

Transistor evokes digital technology with its aesthetics, but it's subtle about it.  This isn't a Tron lookalike; the city ends up looking sort of vintage and futuristic at the same time.  The effect is unique and delicious.
Red finishes her story with the full power of the Transistor in her hands. The engineer's dream: think what you want to create, and it appears. But though the Transistor can repair the buildings and machines of Cloudbank with ease, it can't bring back the people. And without citizens, all the rest becomes worthless. There's nothing left for Red in the city, no reason to rebuild. Cloudbank is done for, destroyed by the machinations of a few people who thought they would forcibly change it for the better. And where does that leave us?

Some things can't be fixed. Renewed, yes (as one sees after waiting out the game's final song), but they can never go back to the way they were before tragedy struck. You won't … can't … save everyone. That's the theme this story leaves me with. It's an interesting contrast to Bastion's ending, which allows the player to literally rewind time and clean up the mess. It's also an unconventional message for me to like. I deal with enough of this particular type of powerlessness in real life, so why would I want it in my video games? Yet I appreciate it here, because … maybe it's a lesson I need to learn. I don't get the impression that Red failed, but rather, that she did everything she possibly could to save the city, and was ready to move on. Hers is a different kind of hero's journey in which the attempt is the important element, not so much the results. And this is something helpful for me to remember whenever I'm tempted to beat myself up because I haven't yet solved all the world's problems or created multiple works of genius. Transistor broke my heart for an afternoon, but oddly enough, it's left me with a greater feeling of peace about life in general.

I'm also full of inspiration and ready to get back into robotics work. Expect some updates about the artificial muscles, and maybe some other things, in the near future.

Saturday, May 3, 2014

Homemade Artificial Muscles IV

Okay, I've been busy, but it's finally time for another artificial muscle update! I've achieved some of my best results yet, and I think I'm about ready to try using these in an actual application.

Oven Calibration and Annealing

I wanted the ability to test different annealing temperatures. However, the helpful KD5ZXG, who has been leaving a lot of comments on the first post in this series, warned me that temperatures in my toaster oven might not match what's shown on the dial. To get an idea of the actual temperature, I calibrated my oven with sugar and found out that it runs about 50°F hotter than the dial indicates when I'm trying to set the oven in the 300°F neighborhood.

Once I had a better idea of what the oven was actually doing, I baked a bunch of small nylon loops at different temperatures and for different lengths of time. These weren't muscles, just short pieces of nylon wound into circles, with their ends pinned in place by an alligator clip. Each time I turned up the heat, I allowed the oven and the metal pan to pre-heat for at least ten minutes before introducing any nylon samples. This is more time than it actually seems to need to get up to temperature, but I wanted to be safe – the oven can swing to even higher temperatures during its pre-heat cycle, so it's best to let it gain stability before annealing muscles. All the temperatures given in the conclusions below take the 50°F offset of the dial into account.

My green 711 um line (Trilene Big Game) is fine with being annealed for up to 30 minutes at 300°F, but starts melting at 350°F. The other two brands I'm working with (Cousin Clear Monofilament 381 um and Zebco Omniflex 533 um) do just fine at 350°F and below. I previously saw some of the Cousin stuff melt at 350°F, but I wonder if that was because I didn't pre-heat the oven properly before putting it in.

At 200°F, 10 minutes in the oven won't do much to set the loops of nylon … they want to unwind again after being unclipped. However, 20 minutes or more at this temperature will do the trick. At 250°F, 10 minutes still isn't enough, though the loops set better than at 200°F. At 300°F, 10 minutes is sufficient to set a simple loop, though for tightly coiled muscles you might want to go longer. This is the recommended annealing temperature, and since I've confirmed that it doesn't melt any of the lines (assuming I set my oven dial so I actually get 300°F!) it's the temperature I'll be using in the future. I've been annealing my most recent muscles for 20 minutes at 300°F.

Heating Elements

In my last post, I mentioned that tinsel wire seemed like the best heating element out of the ones I tried. My supply was very limited, though, since I pulled it out of an old pair of headphones – and try as I might, I could not find any place to buy it! The only tinsel wire that I found for sale in small quantities was intended for repairing speakers, and its diameter was far too large. So instead, I bought some 10/46 litz wire from this Ebay seller. Litz wire is made from many small copper strands coated with a film of insulation, much like tinsel wire, but it lacks the fiber core. It's so flexible that I suspect you could use it like conductive thread as well. I also bought some 30 AWG nichrome wire from this seller.

Conclusion: the litz wire is my favorite. I might buy a slightly thicker version next time, since it seems a little delicate; it's not nearly as bad as the single-strand magnet wire, but I've had it snap on me a couple of times. As part of a muscle, it heats fast, cools fast, and generally provides great performance.

As for the nichrome, it's reasonably good, but due to its high resistivity, it doesn't heat up nearly as fast as the litz wire. If your muscle is very short, your system has enough voltage to drive a reasonable current through the nichrome, or you just don't need your muscle to respond very fast, it's probably fine – but I would say that it's not as versatile as the litz wire. (You can always reduce voltage if you want less current through your muscle. Stepping it up is harder.) It's also not insulated, so if adjacent coils short together when the muscle is fully contracted, interesting things might happen. The best thing about it is its strength. I never had problems with the nichrome wanting to break during coiling.

But nichrome is MADE for heating! Why are you saying it doesn't work as well as copper?!

Nichrome is used in places like your toaster mainly because it can get very hot without melting or oxidizing. But I don't need or want the heating elements in my artificial muscles to be red-hot. I would like to be able to use them in low-voltage systems, say 5-6V. The amount of resistive heat you can get out of a wire is proportional to the amount of power you pump into it. And since P = V2/R, increasing resistance when voltage is fixed will decrease your power. All else being equal (same power supply, same length and diameter of wire, same environment), a copper wire will produce more heat, faster, than a nichrome wire. Copper also has better thermal conductivity than nichrome, meaning it will cool more quickly after the power is turned off.

Demonstration

Here's a video of my latest muscle. This one has two litz wires wrapped around the nylon in opposite directions to provide better coverage, for faster and more even heating. It is lifting a bag of pennies weighing 35g (slightly more than one ounce). You might notice that the coils near the top are going flat. I got greedy and overheated it.  I'm powering it with a 3V wall wart, and it is drawing 1.17 A.


Until the next cycle,
Jenny

Saturday, March 29, 2014

DIY Fishing Line Artificial Muscles III

Most of what I've done since the last blog post has involved testing different heating elements. In the process, I've built some muscles that I thought were good enough to film. They're slower than I would like (not just in the cooling phase, but also in the heating phase), but getting a proper driver circuit built might fix that. Blowing air on them helps them cool off faster, but I purposely avoided doing that so that you can see how long it takes them to relax in still air.

First of all, I'm about ready to give up on the copper magnet wire. It's simply too easy to snap – even if I could make it work, I don't want a delicate, frustrating manufacturing experience, especially since I might end up making a lot of these.

The first alternative I tried out was Beadalon 7-strand beading wire, which is made of stainless steel with a thin nylon sheath for insulation. It's highly flexible, and has a much higher resistance than the copper wire: about .30 Ω/cm, yielding a total of 14 Ω at the length I used. The same length of my copper magnet wire has a resistance of only 3.5 Ω (0.075 Ω/cm).  (Don't set too much store by those numbers. My multimeter doesn't seem to be very good at reliably measuring resistances this small.) The total diameter of the wire and insulation is 0.46 mm. I made a homochiral (contracting) rod-coiled muscle using this wire and some of the 50 lb. test (711 um) nylon line, and got what I would call my first really good muscle. I was able to cycle it many times without damaging it and making the coils go flat (a problem I had previously with the muscles that used the copper magnet wire). It contracted enough to lift a suspended ferrite core about 1 cm. The main disadvantage of this wire, as compared with the copper, is that it heats up much more slowly, and I think it cools more slowly as well. This could be due to its higher resistance, which would have reduced the current flowing through the wire (I've been using about the same voltage for all my tests). Or it could be mainly due to the insulation limiting the rate of heat transfer from wire to muscle.


I also tried some tinsel wire – multiple strands of enameled copper wrapped around a fiber core – which I scavenged from the cord of an old pair of headphones. This is my favorite heating element so far. It doesn't break easily, it heats quickly, and it's less bulky than the Beadalon wire, because it's insulated with enamel rather than a nylon sheath. When it's put under tension and wound up into a muscle, the strands shift and flatten so that the wire takes up very little vertical space between the coils, and it spreads out a little to touch a greater surface area of the nylon. I made a heterochiral (expanding) rod-coiled muscle with this stuff.


In the comments of a previous blog post, bluesmokelounge suggested using a heating wire without any enamel, presumably to get quicker heat transfer. I'm a little wary of doing that. Loops of wire on adjacent muscle coils can contact each other when the muscle is fully contracted, and would short together without insulation, throwing off any calculations based on the length of the wire and possibly causing uneven heating. If the muscle were cycling continuously, this condition would be momentary, but it could be more of an issue if one wanted to hold the muscle in a contracted state for a while.

Last of all, I tried electrically heating some self-coiled muscles. Even though I like the tinsel wire best, I don't have much of it right now, so I used the stainless steel beading wire instead. My first attempt to heat a self-coiled muscle with this was a flop. I don't know if that was because the wire was too long (hence high-resistance) and I couldn't get it hot enough with the battery pack I was using, or if the large diameter of the beading wire was preventing the muscle from contracting by taking up too much space between the coils. I suspect the latter, because the very top of the muscle (which wasn't coiled as well) did try to move. So instead of coiling the wire up with the nylon monofilament, I tried wrapping a shorter length of wire around an already-formed self-coiled muscle. This wire got hotter and didn't interfere with the movement of the coils, and I was able to see some results. Using a self-coiled muscle made from my 25 lb. test (533 um) line in this configuration, I was able to lift a weight of about 55 g a millimeter or two … but it's more dramatic to watch this same muscle flex a piece of paper:


Until the next cycle,

Jenny

Saturday, March 22, 2014

Foundations Part I: The Doctor of Brains

If I tried to list the video games that have strongly impacted my life, the first ones that came to mind would have powerful narratives, but there are a few cases in which the gameplay itself had an influence by helping to develop my mind. I'm referring to my childhood collection of “edugames.” I had many of these, but I'm going to focus on just three standouts. Why these three? Because I loved them so much that I STILL PLAY THEM NOW, even though the puzzles are more of a tease than a real exercise for my brain nowadays. In this article, I'll be featuring The Castle of Dr. Brain and its sequel, The Island of Dr. Brain1.

This is no ordinary island.
Both edugames were produced by Sierra during the “golden age” of adventure games, so they share many stylistic similarities with classics such as King's Quest V. Castle was even directed by Corey Cole, famous among fans of adventure games for his work on the Quest for Glory series and other well-known Sierra titles. However, the Dr. Brain games are played in the first-person, are more linear than a typical adventure game, and have simple plots that serve mainly as a background for the puzzles. In Castle, you're trying to apply for a job as the titular Dr. Brain's lab assistant, and it turns out that his idea of an interview is making you prove your worth by opening numerous puzzle barriers to reach the castle basement. In Island, you've been hired, and you're tasked with retrieving a special battery from Dr. Brain's island fortress … but for security reasons, you again have to deal with a bunch of puzzles in your way. The environments through which the player travels are mysterious and whimsical, and full of objects that deliver silly animations or descriptions when clicked.  Much of the castle interior and some of the island labs get a bit dark and oppressive, though. I guess Dr. Brain has to keep up that creepy mad scientist mystique, even though he's officially opposed to violence.  The graphics consist of hand-painted scenes rendered into pixelated backdrops suitable for the computer screens of the time. Since a number of people love this “retro” look and are still creating games in that style, I can say that they've aged well … and if you don't mind the mosaic-like appearance of the art, it's still very attractive.

The robot room of Dr. Brain's castle.  Which head is being honest with you??
The games are more broad than deep, providing a very basic introduction to many different fields and whetting the player's appetite for more. Both titles feature puzzles that cover pattern recognition, sequences, spatial reasoning, mathematics, simple programming, digital logic, and cryptography. Castle also includes a memory game and a bit of astronomy.  Island adds navigation, foreign languages, chemistry, genetics, music, mechanics, and art history. (Salvador Dali was probably my favorite of the featured artists; obviously, youthful me already had a taste for the weird.)  Island also comes with a neat companion book called the EncycloAlmanacTionaryOgraphy, which provides background information helpful for solving and fully understanding many of the puzzles.

Although the Dr. Brain games only scrape the surface of each topic, I'm surprised by how useful, or at least interesting, the provided bits of information are. They constituted my first (I think – it was a long time ago) introduction to binary numbers, logic gates, ciphers, Fibonacci numbers, dominant and recessive genes, and that lovely sequential puzzle called the Tower of Hanoi. Some of the concepts gained here are things that I still use, though they've been supplemented by layers of additional depth. The games also made the knowledge that they presented fun and engaging. They fascinated and inspired me enough that I did some outside activities inspired by their puzzles – for instance, I made my own polyominoes out of paper, as suggested in the EATO.

The hardest level of the Tower of Hanoi puzzle.
I think the adventure puzzle format followed by the Dr. Brain games had a lot to do with their appeal, at least for me personally. The linear narrative gave me a sense of accomplishment; it was possible to reach the end of the game and achieve some worthy goal in the process. The exploration element provided a little thrill of discovery as I opened up each new area. And perhaps most importantly, the puzzles were varied, interesting, and thought-provoking. In Island you can accumulate a higher score by completing the puzzles over and over, but the game will never force you to do this. I don't remember games like Math Munchers with nearly as much fondness, because they were basically the same dull rote exercises I was made to do for homework, with a layer of arcade action and cartoonish animation plastered on top. I went from being bored when the Troggles (enemies) were turned off, to frustrated when they were turned on. The Dr. Brain games avoided both of these problems by including puzzles that were inherently engaging and letting me solve them at my own pace.

Both games are abandonware now, and they are easy to get running in DOSBox. So why not give them a try with your own kids? (Just be sure to mention that Pluto is not considered a planet any more.)  You can download them from Abandonia: Castle of Dr. BrainIsland of Dr. Brain. Be sure to download the game manuals also, because you will need them to solve certain puzzles. (And who doesn't want xir own EncycloAlmanacTionaryOgraphy?)

I've got one more edugame that I want to talk about, but I'm going to save that one for another post.

Happy cogitations,
Jenny


1. There are two more games in the series, The Lost Mind of Dr. Brain and The Time Warp of Dr. Brain, but I never got to play more than the demo of Lost Mind. It feels very different from the previous two games, and didn't strike me as having the same appeal. Maybe I'll have to give it and Time Warp a proper try someday.