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Reprogrammed Assembly Line Robots Make Fine Art in San Francisco

Image Credit: Bot & Dolly

What is an Autofuss? Good question. The four year old San Francisco design firm is hard to pin down. Go to the website to find out, and you will be shown (not told) with a lush selection of video shorts defying the laws of physics and begging the question, “How’d they do that?” Well, you wouldn’t be here if the answer were anything else. Robots, of course.

Autofuss is where art and technology collide, and we got treated to a tour at a recent Singularity University Executive Program.

Upon arrival, visitors are greeted by an upscale San Francisco café in a converted loading dock called Front. Front is the newest of two sister companies cofounders, Randall Stowell and Jeff Linnell, started after Autofuss.

The name is fitting—it is a front. Through a door in the back, the ceilings rise and the walls expand into an industrial space reminiscent of grease and machines and the cacaphony of a bygone era. But most of the grease has long departed and gleaming in its place are two giant robotic arms. The robots used to be assembly line workers at an auto plant. Now they’re artists.

To cook up visual treats on behalf of Google, Adobe, or Hollywood, Autofuss attaches cameras to these robotic arms and leads them in an intricate, pre-programmed dance, impossible to replicate with human hands alone.

Though Autofuss didn’t build these robots, they thoroughly reprogrammed them—or rather, sister company Bot & Dolly did. Bot & Dolly is Linnell’s specialty. He wrote the Maya-based robotics software platform, IRIS, used to control their robots. IRIS makes it easy for non-technical artistic types to choreograph whole robotic sequences for their cameras to follow.

To show off the software’s flexibility and the machines’ dexterity and precision, Linnell led us to a corner where a robot was busily stacking pieces of wood into a beautifully curvilinear wall.The early applications for IRIS are clearly in film, but other artists could potentially make use of the platform. (Provided they can afford a robot, of course.)

After an eye-opening tour—and in peril of missing our bus—the Singularity Hub crew grabbed Stowell for a quick interview.We asked him what vision was at the heart of Autofuss, where the companies are now, and where they’re going.

But let’s dispense with words. The power of Autofuss and Bot & Dolly is in the imagery. We’ve included a few of our favorite of their creations below. For the full portfolio, check out autofuss.com and botndolly.com.

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