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MIT/Course 2.009
MIT/Course 2.009

Ollie the Baby Otter Robot

MIT/Course 2.009
MIT/Course 2.009

Can't get your hands on a real otter? The next best thing might be Ollie, a baby-sized robotic otter with plush fur that responds to your touch with purrs and pleasant sounds.

Ollie's true purpose isn't to delight otter lovers (that's just an added benefit) but to help patients suffering from ailments like cancer or depression. Petting an animal has been shown to have a variety of benefits, including improving a patient's mood or decreasing loneliness. Unfortunately, a live animal is not always the right choice for every patient, so there needs to be an alternative. And that's where Ollie comes in.

Equipped with a Raspberry Pi for a brain and sensors to detect how it's being held, the "robotter" can simulate a living, breathing animal. It has a waterproof cover over its robotic parts and the fur is washable. It was built by a team of MIT students for the course 2.009 (Product Engineering Processes) who had read up on the benefits of Assisted Pet Therapy. As seen in their presentation, the robot reacts to touch and behaves like an affectionate animal. The prototype cost about $500 to make, but they estimate the machine can be built for as little as $90 if mass-produced.

There are other therapy robots on the market, but none are quite so affordable. The Japanese robotic seal Paro, for example, costs about $6000. Ollie aims to be a more practical choice for consumers.

In order to avoid making the product too creepy, the creators decided to make an otter, as opposed to a cat or dog. Similar to Paro the seal, we don't often interact with otters, so the robot doesn't fall into the Uncanny Valley.

So far there is no word what the future of Ollie is, but hopefully it will be able to help those in need of a friend shortly. 

[h/t: Refinery29.comIEEE Spectrum]

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Pop Culture
How to Perform the Star Wars Theme—On Calculators
Star Wars © & TM 2015 Lucasfilm Ltd. All Rights Reserved.
Star Wars © & TM 2015 Lucasfilm Ltd. All Rights Reserved.

The iconic Star Wars theme has been recreated with glass harps, theremins, and even cat meows. Now, Laughing Squid reports that the team over at YouTube channel It’s a small world have created a version that can be played on calculators.

The channel’s math-related music videos feature covers of popular songs like Luis Fonsi’s "Despacito," Ed Sheeran’s "Shape of You," and the Pirates of the Caribbean theme, all of which are performed on two or more calculators. The Star Wars theme, though, is played across five devices, positioned together into a makeshift keyboard of sorts.

The video begins with a math-musician who transcribes number combinations into notes. Then, they break into an elaborate practice chord sequence on two, and then four, calculators. Once they’re all warmed up, they begin playing the epic opening song we all know and love, which you can hear for yourself in all its electronic glory below.

[h/t Laughing Squid]

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Design Firm Envisions the Driverless School Bus of the Future
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Engineers have already designed vehicles capable of shuttling pizzas, packages, and public transit passengers without a driver present. But few have considered how this technology can be used to transport our most precious cargo: kids. Though most parents would be hesitant to send their children on a bus with no one in the driver's seat, one design firm believes autonomous vehicle technology can change their rides for the better. Their new conceptual project, called Hannah, illustrates their ideas for the future of school bus travel.

As Co.Design reports, Seattle-based design firm Teague tackled both the practical challenges and the social hurdles when designing their driverless school bus. Instead of large buses filled with dozens of kids, each Hannah vehicle is designed to hold a maximum of six passengers at a time. This offers two benefits: One, fewer kids on the route means the bus can afford to pick up each student at his or her doorstep rather than a designated bus stop. Facial recognition software would ensure every child is accounted for and that no unwanted passengers can gain access.

The second benefit is that a smaller number of passengers could help prevent bullying onboard. Karin Frey, a University of Washington sociologist who consulted with the team, says that larger groups of students are more likely to form toxic social hierarchies on a school bus. The six seats inside Hannah, which face each other cafeteria table-style, would theoretically place kids on equal footing.

Another way Hannah can foster a friendlier school bus atmosphere is inclusive design. Instead of assigning students with disabilities to separate cars, everyone can board Hannah regardless of their abilities. The vehicle drives low to the ground and extends a ramp to the road when dropping off passengers. This makes the boarding and drop-off process the same for everyone.

While the autonomous vehicles lack human supervisors, the buses can make up for this in other ways. Hannah can drive both backwards and forwards and let out children on either side of the car (hence the palindromic name). And when the bus isn’t ferrying kids to school, it can earn money for the district by acting as a delivery truck.

Still, it may be a while before you see Hannah zipping down your road: Devin Liddel, the project’s head designer, says it could take at least five years after driverless cars go mainstream for autonomous school buses to start appearing. All the regulations that come with anything involving public schools would likely prevent them from showing up any sooner. And when they do arrive, Teague suspects that major tech corporations could be the ones to finally clear the path.

"Could Amazon or Lyft—while deploying a future of roving, community-centric delivery vehicles—take over the largest form of mass transit in the United States as a sort of side gig?" the firm's website reads. "Hannah is an initial answer, a prototype from the future, to these questions."

[h/t Co.Design]

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