‘Amelia and the Machine,’ VCU faculty builds partnership between dance and robots

Illustration by Clare Wislar

Mikayla Heightshoe, Contributing Writer

A hush settled over the audience as soft blue lights lit the stage of Grace Street Theater to reveal a three-foot-tall robot mimicking and dancing alongside a human partner. 

“Amelia and the Machine” debuted Isadora, a dancing robot, beginning an estimated five-year collaboration between VCU dance and engineering departments. 

Junior dance and choreography student Amelia Virtue, Isadora’s human dance partner, said the experience, from choosing the arm choreography of the robot to following the robot’s lead, was “really awesome.” 

“It [dancing with the robot] was definitely very interesting. I told everyone it was super cool,” Virtue said. “It was definitely a lot of collaborating.”

Amelia Virtue and Isadora, the robot, perform at VCUarts Dance NOW 2022. Photo courtesy of Anthony Johnson

The performance for VCUarts Dance NOW 2022 concert introduced the new collaborative project between Patrick Martin, an assistant professor of electrical and computer engineering, and Kate Sicchio, an assistant professor of dance and choreography, according to the VCUarts website.

Martin, the lead engineer of the robots, said the performance exceeded his expectations. He is working with Sicchio to apply for a seed grant, a small-sum investment given to start-ups, with the National Science Foundation to further this project for future development, according to Martin.

“We want to establish what’s called a ‘research experience’ for undergraduates where we would attract young students and people from outside VCU to come and study under both of us and maybe other partners who are also interested in these similar topics,” Martin said.  

Martin said he met Sicchio last year through their common interest in human and technological interaction.

“It’s a really important challenge because robots are now still pretty terrible at interacting with people. We wanted to focus on how to develop a way to kind of bring people together,” Martin said. “We thought this would be a good demonstration of the technology and what it can and can’t do.”

Martin said he worked alongside Charles Dietzel, VCU electrical computer engineering graduate student, to develop the hardware and software of two robots. They were later named Trevor and Isadora.

Trevor and Isadora are composed of two main parts: a disk for movement with differential drive that allows rotation and a robot arm that is anatomically similar to a human’s strapped to the top, according to Martin.

Martin said the movement development of the robots took place in multiple stages. The development began with a learning aspect that required programming algorithms for specific movements the dancers wanted the robot to do. This led to the creation of a software, called an autonomy framework, that would allow the robot to switch its mode of operation, according to Martin.

“So when it would do the arm motion, that one piece of what I would call it behavior. And for the rest of the performance, our autonomy framework strung together those behaviors much like a choreographer tells a human, ‘I want you to do these motions around the stage,’” Martin said.

Amelia Virtue and Isadora, the robot, rehearse for performance. Photo courtesy of Carl Patow

Experiments with movement across the stage involving speed and parameters became the next step after “pre-programming,” and it became the catalyst for the choreography, according to Kate Sicchio, dance and choreography professor.

Sicchio choreographed the dance by creating four dance patterns for the dancer and robot to do, then timing each movement and step for the engineering team to program back at their lab, according to Sicchio.

Sicchio said she worked with dance and choreography student Tamara Denson and kinetic imaging student Taylor Colimore to explore choreography, as well as senior dance and computer engineering student Alicia Olivo, who was able to reinforce the choreography in the lab development of the robots.

“We’re actually figuring it out together as we build these things together. This project resulted in a dance piece and an algorithm,” Sicchio said. “They’re really cohesive and symbiotic that they’re feeding each other, which is exciting and doesn’t happen all the time in this kind of work.”

Sicchio and Martin have future ideas that include furthering the technology. This includes adding senses, such as seeing, hearing and feeling, to the robot’s design with wearable devices for dancers to create a bridge of communication and developing more predisposed algorithms so the robots can respond to improvisation, according to Sicchio.

“There’s movement to be learned, whether it’s a choreographer learning new movement possibilities on a robot arm or a robot learning from a dancer,” Sicchio said. “There’s all this stuff that we haven’t figured out yet. And our project is just scratching the surface.”

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