UK Robotics Week (ICYMI)

Whilst the UK’s political landscape may be in turmoil after the effects of Brexit (which I will avoid expressing my opinions on here – you’ve probably heard enough!) it’s of an even greater importance to celebrate our contributions to driving technology, industry and our economy forwards. Last week (25th June – 1st July) was the first UK Robotics Week, organised by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC)’s Robotics and Autonomous Systems (RAS) Network, supported by the IET and IMechE and probably other people who have acronyms upon acronyms in their names. It’s been almost a year since I took part in Reading University’s Begin Robotics MOOC and it’s great to see companies and universities reaching out again to bring robotic systems to the general public with so many different opportunities.

There have been a range of activities, conferences and workshops available, aimed at all kinds of audiences from future young engineers to experts and academics. From FIRST LEGO League Jr to Care-o-bots for the elderly, and even a Mancunian Robot Orchestra!


The Care-o-bot 3 Robotic Assistant

I wasn’t able to attend any this year but here’s a summary of what went on for those who want to look a little further into the subject. If you were able to get to any of the events, let me know what you thought!

Talks and Symposia:

The first media coverage I saw of UK Robotics Week was from the talk Robots: Faithful servants or existential threat? at the Royal Academy of Engineering. The focus was on the ethics of robotics and whether something that obeys coded rules without context is a danger to humans. There is an interesting article from the Mirror called Robots could end up like dangerous dogs if humans don’t learn to train them properly, which shows their angle on the talk, I suppose.

Surrey Technology for Autonomous systems and Robotics (STAR) Lab within one of my favourite universities, Surrey, held an Evening on Space Robotics. The public lectures were be given by space professionals who work on the front line of developing and operating space robotic systems including David Iron, Founder of Lunar Mission One, and Abbie Hutty, Senior Spacecraft Structures Engineer at Airbus Defence and Space. There was also an exhibition showcasing state-of-the-art space robotics including the first European Space Agency’s Mars Rover and the ongoing robotics project at the International Space Station carried out by Tim Peake.


The Hamlyn Symposium for Medical Robotics is an international forum for surgeons and engineers to discuss the latest advances in surgical and medical robotics. It attracts pioneers of the field and researchers from leading Universities from around the world. The symposium includes a series of workshops covering the main themes of surgical robotics.

Towards Autonomous Robotic Systems (or TAROS) 2016 is a 17 year old robotics conference held in Sheffield, covering a broad range of robotics and autonomous systems technologies. The comference featured speakers from around the world, workshops and paper submissions on the subject. The IET lecture on Developmental Robotics for Embodied Language Learning by Professor Angelo Cangelosi from Plymouth University was also open to the public.

This week  (4th – 7th July), Imperial College London will be hosting Eurohaptics 2016, which is a major international conference for academics and researchers on haptics and touch enabled computer applications, and the primary European meeting for researchers in this field.

Demonstrations and Events:

The Educational Robotics Hackathon was a two week long open event for ages 18+, sponsored by Ocado Technology. Its aim was for teams to design and prototype robots to be used in a educational setting for kids, parents and teachers. The designs were judged on being educational, engaging and fun whilst also being easy to use when teaching the principles of robotics. The aim was to design something that makes a real difference to teaching and that inspires children to understand and enjoy robotics, engineering and technology as a whole.

Universities such as Sheffield, Leeds and Plymouth also held open lab events to introduce students and members of the public to their autonomous systems, including workshops for kids to start building their own and inspiring the next generation of young engineers.

UK Robotics Week teams were present at Cheltenham Science Festival and London Tech Weekend. Plus, the atBristol Science Centre welcomed in The Tortoises: modern robots based on William Grey Walter’s experiments to show how behaviours of simple robotic machines can seem complex and lifelike in a similar fashion to Valentino Braitenberg’s Vehicles. If you still want to see some of the Bristol Robotics Lab robots, the Science Centre has a Superhuman Lab event running until mid September with a 3D printed bionic hand which mimics your movements.

Meet the Tortoises at Bristol Robotics Laboratory

Meet the Tortoises at Bristol Robotics Lab

The week ended with the International Robotics Showcase held at the IET’s Savoy Place in London. With talks from international university professors (Harvard’s Prof Robert Howe, Tsukuba’s Yoshiyuki and Khalifa’s Jorge Manuel Miranda Dias), industry professionals and even ESA astronaut Roberto Vittori, I am gutted to have missed this and hold high expectations for next year. The exhibition floor also looked very impressive, with my favourite being the adorable Miro biomimetic companion robot below. It’s even more lovable because of the build-it-yourself design and teaching experience Robert McGrath talked about in his post: Self-assembly affects user experience of robots.

Miro robot

Miro the companion robot was shown at the IET International Showcase.


For me, the most important parts of Robotics Week were the 4 interactive challenges. For school children aged 4 to 18, they were tasked with designing a robot bug on paper, turning it into a 3D model  and teaching it how to move using free bespoke software. Schools can also choose to 3D print the models for students, closing the whole design process and giving the kids something to take home whilst also teaching them coding, modelling and prototyping biologically inspired robotics. What a great idea!

Robot Bug Challenge for School UK Robotics Week

The Autonomous Driving Challenge follows a similar process and was open to everyone. Draw your own racetrack and vehicle, make them into 3D models and program how your car will drive itself around without a driver. I had a go at this one from home. It’s a simple introductory task, but involves a lot of different concepts, is a lot of fun and the free software is pretty impressive. If you want to have a look for yourself or your kids, the resources are currently still available over at

For postgrad students, academics and researchers looking for a greater challenge, there were competitions based on Surgical Robots and Agricultural Field Robotics. The first was supported by Intuitive Surgical and KUKA Robotics, with a total £10,000 prize fund, and focused on research teams developing their own medical robots to be used in surgery. Teams had 3 hours to set up their design and demonstrate it to a panel of experts in robotics and leading surgeons with a presentation and technical Q&A.

The Field Robotics Challenge was hosted by Sheffield Robotics as part of TAROS 2016 and focuses on real world agricultural scenarios including surveying at high and low levels and ground sampling. Teams need to develop control software and collect and process data from air and ground robots. Some impressive robots were shown here and it looks like it went well, even with the first day being called off for typical British weather.


Sheffield Field Robotics Challenge

You can still access the resources for some of the challenges above and details of further events in the field can be found in the UK Robotics Week program, here.

Overall, the week was a great success and it was a total shame that it, along with National Women in Engineering Day, was so overshadowed by the EU Referendum business. I can’t wait to see the event evolve and get involved myself next year!

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My 10 Favourites from E3 2016

Today marks the end of the biggest week in 2016 gaming announcements, E3. A lot of great upcoming games and features were shown but, in my opinion, the best and most exciting updates came from some of my 10 favourite surprises of last year’s E3 such as Horizon: Zero Dawn, ReCore and South Park: The Fractured But Whole. So the content of this post is actually My 10 Favourites from E3 That Weren’t On My List From 2015:

10. eSports Accessibility

The eSports world is growing at an astounding rate. With tournament prizes in the multi-millions, a number of major company sponsoring teams and a horde of fans watching streams on sites like Twitch, it’s really no surprise that it was mentioned in the EA, Xbox and PC Gaming conferences at E3. 

Both EA and Xbox want to make it more accessible for the average gamer to really get into the competitive spirit. Xbox are bringing in new features such as Clubs and a new tournament platform, Arena, where players can reportedly register, spectate and compete in gaming competitions for Smite, H1Z1 and Work of Tanks.

EA are introducing 3 tiers of their eSports offering which focus on their sports games like Madden NFL. Challenger will allow users to host and run their own tournaments, Premier will include larger live events hosted by EA and select partners and EA Major events will be massive global competitions with the first Madden series offering a $1 million prize.

EA supporting eSports at E3 2016

9. Giant Cop (Other Ocean Interactive)

Giant Cop is a VR game where the clue is in the name – you’re a giant cop who is in charge of Micro City. Look over your domain and change things as you please. Whether it’s cleaning up the streets by plucking out criminals and crooks or destroying those who oppose you by chucking a bus at protesters (the best part of the trailer), you’re in control of what looks to be an open world with an interesting art style and a great sense of humour. After a lot of games that take themselves too seriously, it was nice to see something a little silly and sandbox-y in the PC Gaming Show. 

8. Mass Effect Andromeda (Bioware)

I was impressed by how great Mass Effect is looking (and really anything made with EA’s Frostbite, so Battlefield 1 too :O) and the making-of video they showed was really interesting. I love the fact that they’re taking feedback from gamers but also introducing the game as a new standalone story rather than tagging on. Despite never really getting into the previous games, Bioware convinced me to give it another shot in preparation for the new release and I’m actually excited.

7. Detroit: Become Human

I debated putting this game on here simply because of the awful cheesy text in the trailer, which you can check out below, because it kills the atmosphere – “Collect information. Face Dilemnas. Do More Stuff….” but the rest of it really intrigued me. I’m a sucker for games where your choices affect the outcome of situation (this is the reason I hated the Telltale Walking Dead, but that’s a story for another day) and the subject matter of robots and AI mixing with old fashioned detective work is just irresistible to me.

6. Steep (Ubisoft)

Steep is an interesting one. Overall, I’m not sure what this game is aiming to be or the direction it is taking but it has some cool (not a pun) aspects. It’s an open-world extreme sports game, which is something that I’m pretty sure hasn’t been done before.

Graphically, it looks really impressive especially with the free-roaming mountain view camera and being able to rewing and slow-mo your extreme moves. It’s the social aspect, however, that really interests me. As you’re skiing, snowboarding, paragliding or flying in a wingsuit, you can see others in the world around you just hanging out. You can invite friends to play in this open world with you which looks seamless and race and challenge each other however you want. 

With the setting being the alps, the game looks great but I can imagine people becoming bored with just continually racing in the 4 extreme sports in a relatively bare environment. As a concept I think the game could really work with more points of interaction and taking itself less seriously. Adding a central hub or cabin where friends can hang out or introducing something fun like being able to use the snow to create things or snowball fight would keep people hanging out longer and be more willing to explore with others.

5. EA Originals and Fe (Zoink)

After the success of Yarny in the adorable indie game Unravel, EA have started up EA Originals; focusing on finding small developers with experiences that are “unique, gorgeous, innovative and memorable” and bringing them to the world. Fe from Zoink in Sweden is the first of these. Fe, meaning Fairy, has no dialogue or words but chooses to use the language of music for each of the characters encountered and events. The game is a narrative about nature and how everything in the world is connected and every player’s experience is intended to completely different and personal. It reminds me somewhat of the introduction to Ori and The Blind Forest, which was beautiful.

This announcement heralds something that I think was slightly lacking from this year’s E3 – unique and different new IPs. I can’t wait to see more.

4. Prey (Arkane Studios)

Good morning, Morgan.

Apparently the development of a sequel to Prey from 2006 has been cursed, which is obviously why Arkane dropped the 2 from the name and started again. In this Prey, coming 2017, you are aboard the spacestation Talos 1 orbiting the moon as part of some kind of humna experiment. Looking suspiciously similar to the Dead Space games, which are some of my favourites, it seems we’re going to get a new sci-fi psychological thriller that is gonna scare the pants off me. Can’t wait.

3. Fallout VR on HTC Vive

Fallout 4 was probably the most hyped release shown at last year’s E3 and Bethesda couldn’t let that train stop. In 2017, the entirety of the game will be available to play on the HTC Vive. This is a massively impressive feat and I’m curious to see how they will adapt the UI and VATS for virtual reality.

They also have a Doom VR experience, which I’m guessing is just a static tour of the environment. Otherwise, the fast movement and turning would probably turn the E3 floor into chunder city.

I’ve been lucky enough to try a few VR experiences working with VR marketing company Virtual Umbrella and have seen first hand how amazing and immersive the technology can be. There has been a problem explaining this to sceptics, however, when a lot of the content is designed specifically for VR and limited, much like the beginning of 3D experiences at IMAX before Avatar. Bethesda throwing in their lot and bringing a fully established AAA title to the medium is the perfect example that VR can be properly utilised in the future of gaming (and more).

Bethesda VR released at E3 2016 with Fallout and Doom on the HTC Vive

2. God of War (Sony Santa Monica)

Sony opened up their conference with a full orchestra followed by some live gameplay of the new God of War. This was an absolutely fantastic surprise and the most epic way to start things off. The graphics look great, the gameplay fun as hell and there was a deep emotional element that you just wouldn’t expect from God of War with the complex father and son relationship. This is definitely one I’m looking forward to, even if it’s just for Kratos and his new beard 😉

1. Play Anywhere with Xbox One and Windows 10

I’m sure everyone was sick of hearing “Exclusive to Xbox One and Windows 10” at the end of Microsoft’s briefing – they might as well just say “Not on PS4” now – but this is my number one feature released at this E3. I was recently discussing how frustrating it is to have to buy the same game on multiple platforms to play with different people so this was great. The ability to continue my Xbox progress whilst on my laptop at university will probably destroy my education but my Gamerscore will go through the roof! With Gears of War 4 being one of the first to introduce this, we’ll be able to play together in the same room without the restrictions of split-screen views.

Another great example of cross-platform play for mobile devices was shown with a Minecraft demo introducing Realms. The guys on stage were able to join and explore eachother’s games on different devices with one person playing from the Gear VR headset which was really cool.


Xbox Play Anywhere line-up includes Gears of War 4, ReCore and Forza Horizon 3.

So despite Scalebound’s disappointing gameplay, FF15’s departure from turn-based combat and a distinct lack of Kingdom Hearts 3, this E3 has had a pretty awesome lot of announcements.

PS. I’m back! Just like Kojima appearing like a game dev rockstar and showing us Norman Reedus’ butt or whatever.




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Game Dev for Dummies (Part Four)

Part Four: Laser Defender

There’s been quite a wait between part 3 and part 4 of my Game Dev adventures. I’m learning C programming at university so have put learning C# with Unity to one side for a while. Sadly, that means there is likely to be another gap between this and the next one too. Next is a Plants vs Zombies style game which looks really cool.

This time, we have created a Space Invaders clone called Laser Defender. The player moves a spaceship left and right and fires a laser to take out enemies who move across the screen.

This time, we have delved into:

  • Finding game art from creative commons resources – the sprites in this game are by at Kenney at;
  • Controlling a spaceship with the arrow keys within boundaries set by Mathf.Clamp and being able to adjust movement speed;
  • Creating prefabs for any spaceships and introducing Mecanim animations for their movement;
  • Instantiating enemy lasers randomly and player lasers when fired;
  • Setting up trigger colliders and sorting layers;
  • Adding a star-field with parallax effect using the particle system;
  • Keeping score when enemies are destroyed via script.

I haven’t uploaded the game this time as I know the Unity Player plug-in is no longer supported by most browsers, so here’s a peek at how it looks.


Go to: Part One | Part Two | Part Three | Part Four

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The Art of Creative Coding: Can a Computer Become an Artist?

Art is an expression of a human being’s emotion and interpretation of the world around them, often intended to envoke an emotional response from the observer. So how then can a computer, a machine that thinks only in terms of 1s and 0s, be programmed to create a work of art? Is it even possible?


‘Lisa’ created in Processing software

According to Casey Reas, co-creator of the creative coding software Processing, it is. There’s a whole artistic genre called generative art, defined as being created with the use of an autonomous system, and Processing is at the forefront of this. Artists, designers, architects, programmers and complete novices alike can come to the software to experiment and learn to make visually interesting images, like Diana Lange’s Lisa above.

Talking about the program, Reas describes its ambition to “ruin the careers of talented designers by tempting them away from their usual tools and into the world of programming and computation” and “turn engineers and computer scientists to less gainful employment as artists and designers”.

Reas’ inspiration for Processing came from his own experience and experiments with the artistic process: he outlines a set of rules and allowing the program to go over multiple iterations of a rule to create art. It often starts out with a line, a circle or another basic shape and repeats over and over again, with some random variation added to give a different result every time. The computer generated images below were based on a fairly simple rule set which Reas referred to as Process 6:

* Position 3 large circles on a rectangular surface.
* Set the center of each circle as the origin for a large group of Element 1.
* When an Element moves beyond the circle edge, return to origin.
* Draw a line from the centers of Elements that are touching.
* Make the shortest line black and longest white with varied grey between.


Process 6 – Casey Reas

Another such artist is Jon McCormack, who focuses on electronic media and generated artificial life. His Morphogenesis series (2001 – 2004) uses custom computing software to create biological models based on native Australian plant species. A 3D geometric model of the flora is created from the growth algorithm, which can be considered as a kind of ‘digital DNA’, which can then be rendered in a series of digital images.


Morphogenesis Series, #2 – Jon McCormack (2002)

Though many people claim that the generative method is too easy and cannot be considered real art because there is little to no human input in it’s creation or final aesthetic, McCormack makes it clear that the media has increased his creativity and allowed him to create artificial life and impossible worlds that wouldn’t have surfaced with traditional media:

“The computer has shown me things about the world that I could not have known, understood or seen in any other way. I see and appreciate nature in a fundamentally different way than before … I use a computer for the simple reason that the work I create with it would not be possible in any other medium.”

  — Jon McCormack 1994


Morphogenesis Series, #4 – Jon McCormack (2002)

It is also worth considering that, although the models are generated by the computer, McCormack took inspiration from nature and the environment around him, selecting certain behaviours and attributes and used these to create his codeing. McCormack also decided how the final image looked in terms of perspectives and framing and, in Reas’ Processing images, certain iterations of the code are selected as final prints out of an essentially infinite number. Can it not be considered an influence of an artist’s mind that they have chosen one particular image to represent an entire coded concept?


Software generated model for Morphogenesis

Another interesting aspect of generating images from software is ownership and creative recognition. If a beautiful, provocative image is created and becomes world renowned, who is credited as the artist? Is it solely the person who arranged the image that is responsible? If someone adds to someone else’s code to create something, is the original programmer a contributing artist? What about the developer of the software itself that has defined the way in which you can create the art – can they lay claim to artwork made from their platform? Could a hacker obtain the code and end up with a ‘genuine original’ of the series?

This idea of handing over control for a piece of art was explored in the work of abstract artist Sol LeWitt. Instead of using a computer, LeWitt designed wall drawings for gallery installations and had other people create them from a set of basic rules.

Originally, when creating his Wall Drawing #16, LeWitt had draftsmen draw up his piece from his instructions due to concerns about practicality and its time-consuming nature. His later drawings came embrace the idea of generative art. Wall drawing #260, which was first installed at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art in June 1975, is shown below and is a great example of this concept.


Wall Drawing #260 Instructions – Sol LeWitt

The instructions for creating the image is given to artists, trained assistants or even novice volunteers so they can install their own interpretations of the rules. Although each one is of a similar style, they will differ slightly from gallery to gallery. LeWitt considered his method of art to be like a composer and his symphony: the concept and key components are set in stone by the artist and each person implementing it will have their own style and approach to it, like an orchestra taking on a famous piece of music.


Wall Drawing #260 – Sol LeWitt

Computers can be used as a tool to open up a whole new genre of creativity and self expression, whilst also encouraging the often contrasting worlds of art and computing to come together in a new way. Add to that the increasing presence and capability of artificial intelligence and one day we might see real art being made by machines. For some that might be an depressing snapshot of computers ‘taking over’, but to me it’s an exciting thought. But don’t worry, we’re still a long way off. So while we’re waiting, why not check out some of the best Google Deep Dream images created by running existing images or even random noise through it’s image recognition neural networks over and over. There’s more information over here.


Neural net “dreams” generated purely from random noise, using a network trained on places by MIT Computer Science and AI Laboratory

This post was inspired by the Creative Coding course hosted by FutureLearn and Monash University.

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Game Dev for Dummies (Part 3)

Game number 3 is complete! It’s a simple Brick Breaker style game (you know the kind – control a paddle to bounce the ball and destroy bricks) but I really feel like I’ve learnt a lot throughout this. I mean, I’m not exactly going to be rocking out the next AAA title any time soon, but I’m picking up new skills all the time:

  • Importing assets, creating sprite sheets and setting up a menu of style:
    Start > Level 1 > Level 2 > Level 3 > WIN > Restart
    (Lose)           >                         Restart
  • Playing background music continuously through each scene with DontDestroyOnLoad;
  • An introduction to 2D physics including mass and gravity;
  • Controlling a ball using triggers and colliders via script;
  • Controlling paddle movement by mouse and implementing boundaries;
  • Swapping sprites and destroying objects when hit;
  • Automated play testing via script to save you the frustration;
  • Adding sound effects and an introduction to particle systems.

Block Breaker

I used some Adventure Time backgrounds and made character bricks in my version of the game which you’re welcome to check out.

Go to: Part One | Part Two | Part Three |

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I, Robot


After reading Martin Kral’s great post about The Three Laws of Robotics and with a little influence from the Begin Robotics course I have recently finished, I decided it was probably time for me to read some of the great Isaac Asimov’s work.

I started with I, Robot which is a collection of short stories which all revolve around the famous Three Laws of Robotics and the potential problems that such logic could bring. For the uninitiated:

First: A robot may not injure a human being, or, through inaction, allow a human to come to harm.

Second: A robot must obey the orders given it by human beings except where such orders would conflict with the First Law.

Third: A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Law.

– Handbook of Robotics, 56th Edition, 2058 A.D.

The book is structured as an interview with the fictional Robopsychologist Dr Susan Calvin and progresses through the development of robots in Asimov’s world. The first story features a young girl and her robot companion, Robbie, an early model which cannot speak. The stories then jump forward to look at the lives of robotics field testers Powell and Donovan once the mechanical men have become integrated into society; and things take a darker turn in the final story “The Evitable Conflict” in which it is the year 2052 and the seemingly omniscient Machines control the worldwide (or rather, Universe wide) economy and politics to keep war at bay.

It’s difficult to keep reminding yourself when reading this book that the first story was written way back in 1939. Asimov has created an entire SciFi world with technologies very similar the ones arising now – he writes about artificial intelligence, cybernetics and there’s even mention of a ‘Visor phone’ which allows face-to-face communication through the use of light cells (FaceTime anyone?). Of course, there are a few things which seem a bit ridiculous these days, like a robot which uses thousands of relays instead of a microcontroller or processor, but Asimov’s world in which robotics is a normal profession, and robots have become the norm to the point where laws are to be made to govern them, is so brilliantly imagined and eerily similar to modern SciFi that it gives me chills. The man was an absolute genius! I’ve already ordered another 3 of his books which I’m sure I will devour just as quickly.

Back to the books, ciao!

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Game Dev for Dummies (Part 2)

Project number 2 of the Complete Unity Developer course was called Text 101. The aim was to create a text based adventure game quite similar to the old Zork or Colossal Cave Adventure. All the text is controlled via script and uses the concept of a finite state machine to control each stage. Things I’ve learned:

  • Creating a Game Design Document
  • Creating a new project and importing assets
  • Adding a 2D UI text element and image for the background
  • Changing text via script (using IF statements from the previous project)
  • Using an enumeration type to list a set of named constants
  • How to build for the web and share

My version of the game has been based on one of my favourite games, Dark Souls. You can explore, gain souls and die … often. It’s all very short and you have to actually read but if you do want to, you can check it out over here.

Dark ScrollsGo to: Part One | Part Two | Part Three |

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