Design-class projects have come a long way. That's the only conclusion I can draw from this brilliant video of a robotic desk lamp that squeaks, swivels, and mugs for attention like the Pixar mascot come to life.
The lamp is the work of three students at Victoria University in New Zealand: Shanshan Zhou, Adam Ben-Dror, and Joss Doggett. For a class called physical computing, they took an ordinary desk lamp and rebuilt it from the ground up, using servo motors and a webcam to imbue it with the ability to hear noises, recognize faces, and make adorable gestures. Here's the impressively anthropomorphic result:
In a blog post outlining the process in detail, the team members report that they pulled this off using the open-source prototyping platform Arduino and the design-oriented programming language Processing. They set out to give the lamp the power to simulate at least three types of emotionally evocative gestures: scrunching up to inspect an object, stretching out in pursuit of something in the distance, and rearing back to avoid conflict. It's amazing to watch how the three add up to something that feels like a sympathetic personality. Then they gave the lamp a friend: a book that it guards jealously, and upon which it shines lovingly. Finally, as is clear from the video, they gave it the power to turn itself back on. From the group's write-up:
... Observer should be under the impression that the lamp is ordinary until the user interacts with it. Once the user attempts to turn it off it will not, the lamp is in control and is leading its own life. This can/will lead into the past idea for the lamp's purpose and personality.