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Robots Teach Design Students About Being Human

University of Cincinnati design freshmen are building robot “self-portraits” in order to test their automatic assumptions about human beings.  They’ll display their handiwork along the main staircase of the College of Design, Architecture, Art, and Planning from 11 a.m.-2 p.m., Monday, Feb. 7.

Date: 2/2/2005 12:00:00 AM
By: Mary Reilly
Phone: (513) 556-1824
Photos By: Lisa Ventre

UC ingot  

When University of Cincinnati architecture freshman Evan Pheobus shows off the robot he’s constructing from junkyard car parts, he sums up the engine-block body, the alternator head, the shock-coil legs and headlight arms in two words: “It’s me.”

Evan Pheobus and his car-parts robot

“Really,” he insists, “Proportionally speaking, it’s me.  If a car manifested itself as a person, it would be this robot.  Having to build this has taught me so much about human proportionality, how the body is put together, how a person works… For instance, I never realized before that the lower leg and the upper leg are the same length… If I’m going to make buildings work for people, I have to know how people are constituted and laid out.  I’ll be a better designer for it.”

That kind of realization is what’s driving the unusual nuts-and-bolts assignment given to the approximately 120 first-year design students enrolled in UC’s top-ranked interior design and  architecture programs.  They’re asked to transform junk, garbage, kitchen appliances, hardware, tools and other every day items into robotic self-portraits, which are then publicly displayed and judged.

The very public exhibit of the students’ work from 11 a.m.-2 p.m. Monday, Feb. 7, along the main staircase that runs the extent of UC’s College of Design, Architecture, Art, and Planning is one reason architecture student Vince Pelino has dedicated so many hours to this project.  “Ours (a combined piece by Pelino and fellow student Pat Stites) will be right at the top of the staircase.  Made from found metals and aluminum cans, it’s going to be very shiny and will draw attention.  So, it’s got to be good.  I hope people will think, ‘Hey, that’s OK.’”

Pelino and Stites went dumpster diving on campus to resurrect scrap metal, shelving and even road-sign pieces which they fashioned into two sleek forms locked in combat.  “We paired up because we wanted to depict motion in some way.  It’s been very challenging,” explained Pelino.  “Our two locked-in-combat robots only touch the ground in three small portions.  Very little surface area actually connects to the ground.  So, we had to consider how to weight it carefully with one robot being a little more squat while the other carries the sense of motion more, seems a little more airborne.”

He added that the pair spent a lot of time planning and sketching before actually starting construction.  Then, they spent about four days straight welding and testing their ideas in regard to balance, proportion and form.  “We were welding so much that my face was black.  I guess I don’t feel so bad for coal miners now,” joked Pelino, adding, “I learned a lot about structure, and it’s worth it to transfer an individual vision into three dimensions where everyone can see it.”

Mare Warner and her water-bottle 'bot'

   The academic lessons aside, building the army of pseudo-Frankensteins is just a lot of fun for everyone involved.  Pheobus explained, “When I went down to a junkyard in Kentucky to get the car parts, all the guys there were really into it.  They’d bring you the shock towers and say, ‘You could use this for the legs.’  And my Dad owns an auto-repair shop.  He really likes it too.  He calls up and tells me, ‘You could use this or that.’”

Leading the first-year architecture and interior design students in the project are Inci Ilgin, assistant professor of interior design; Dennis Mann, professor of architecture; James Postell, associate professor of interior design; David Lee Smith, professor of architecture; Vincent Sansaloni, visiting assistant professor of architecture and interior design; and Melanie Swick, adjunct professor of architecture.

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