Their arms extend, rotate like the sun, clutch inward, swing side to side, then cross. Lined up in a row so one dancer mimics the other in form and flow, they are one yet different. They are able to hop and reach, to dip and point, so that the effect is synchronicity and grace. It’s a type of gestalt of art and tech that extends beyond the range of either. And the mechanical moves are inspired by an easy, light pop beat.
“Spot’s on It,” the latest dance video from robotics manufacturer Boston Dynamics, commemorates the company’s recent acquisition by the Hyundai Motor Company. The video features quadrupedal Spot robots dancing to “IONIQ: I’m on It.” That anthem was released last year to celebrate the launch of Hyundai Motor’s dedicated electric vehicle brand, IONIQ.
In the 1 minute and 20 second video, several Spot robots bop in sync in a flowing, backstepping, lifting, hopping, stomping, turning, dipping, and tapping series of steps. These are skills inherent in dance, building to agility, balance, and perception, and they’ve been applied by Boston Dynamics to a wide variety of robot applications. The company declares that the robotic choreography is “a form of highly accelerated lifecycle testing for the hardware.”
The Art-in-Robotics Movement
The robots are fun, quirky, and fluid, and each delicate step is part of a carefully choreographed segment by Monica Thomas that takes advantage of the robots’ ability to move exactly like one another — and then to veer off and grasp at the air of possibilities. They lift their heads, complete a 90-degree rotation, and open their “mouths.” The movements combine so the robot performers create subtle expressions and mirrored patterns.
In an interview with Dance magazine, Thomas revealed that she spent a good deal of time watching the robots move to get a sense of their joint flexibility then acted out each part herself. Choreography arose through conversations with the engineers about what was currently possible and what movements they loved seeing in their work with each robot.
From a technical perspective, the robots’ capacity for movement variation demonstrates the progress that these Boston Dynamics robots have made since their first public performance. The engineers built tools and created a “pipeline that lets you take a diverse set of motions, that you can describe through a variety of different inputs, and push them through and onto the robot,” according to Boston Dynamics engineer, Aaron Saunders.
The Marketing Is The Message
Beginning in October, 2018, Boston Dynamics introduced a mechanical dog named Spot which danced to “Uptown Funk” — sung by Bruno Mars — as well as a humanoid robot called Atlas that ran and jumped over obstacles.
Sydney Skybetter, professor of choreography and emerging technologies at Brown University and founder of the Conference for Research on Choreographic Interfaces, describes the design of choreographing groups where the part moves like the whole as both “a technique and a tactic.” Such complexity and subtlety marks “Spot’s on It” as a significant departure from previous Boston Dynamics dances, Skybetter says, adding that Boston Dynamics is a company that “takes dance seriously, with the intersection of ballet, boy bands, and battalions a fitting mechanism to consider ‘Spot’s on It.’”
He notes the following shift in the art behind the Boston Dynamics message.
- This video had a more intense production apparatus behind it than those that preceded it: “Spot’s on It” is accompanied by a friendly corporate blog post that, for the first time, narrates how Boston Dynamics deploys choreography in its marketing and engineering processes.
- Another first is that Thomas is publicly credited as the choreographer of Boston Dynamics’ dances. Her labor in viral videos like “Uptown Spot” and “Do You Love Me?” was rendered “practically invisible,” so Boston Dynamics’ decision to underline Thomas’ role in this latest video is a substantial shift in posture.
- In artists’ hands, these machines are becoming eminently capable of expression through performance.
The company’s self-professed goal is “changing your idea of what robots can do,” and they’ve made tremendous inroads with the “Spot’s On It” video. It’s difficult to distinguish between the robots, and at times it’s unclear which robot “head” belongs to which robot body.
The Music Behind The Boston Dynamics’ Method
Boston Dynamics’ last dancing video has over 32 million views on YouTube. The “Spot’s on It” video sound track was recorded by Hyundai global ambassador and South Korean 7-member megaband BTS. The music that grounds the video has an energetic and pleasing pace, with BTS reveling in the word “IONIQ.”
With an enormous US fan base, BTS is known for casual posts, live-streamed video diaries, or produced episodes of their reality TV-like web show “Run BTS!” The clips have created a kind of intimacy between BTS and their fans that other K-pop groups have since tried to imitate. The BTS Army has acted as a network of unpaid translators, producing English subtitles and texts of their content, connecting BTS with their non-Korean speaking audience.
The Boston Dynamics collaboration with BTS, one of the most popular bands on the planet with an extremely active fan base, is certain to accrue even more hits and visibility, making visible the interface between art and technology.
Final Thoughts About Boston Dynamics
The feats of the Boston Dynamics robots are truly amazing. The coordinated dance routine involved incredibly precise programming as an alternative to utilizing the robot’s built-in sensors or obstacle avoidance algorithms that Spot usually uses to get around and accomplish tasks. “Everything had to be worked out in advance and scripted precisely,” explained Eric Whitman, a Boston Dynamics roboticist.
SpaceX has used one of the robots to inspect the Starship SN10 crash site. With the Boston Dynamics advancement of solving the dilemma how to make robots walk like animals, stay balanced, maintain erect stature, and how to overcome obstacles, the next steps (pun intended) will develop robotic athletic performance like dance stresses consistent with the mechanical design of the robot, which stresses algorithms in the software.
In June, 2021, Hyundai Motor Group, Boston Dynamics, Inc., and SoftBank Group Corp. announced the completion of the Group’s acquisition of a controlling interest in Boston Dynamics from SoftBank, following the receipt of regulatory approvals and other customary closing conditions. The deal valued the mobile robot firm at $1.1 billion.
“With the acquisition of Boston Dynamics, Hyundai Motor will expand its new robotics business to provide customers with exciting mobility experiences,” said Thomas Schemera, Executive Vice President and Global Chief Marketing Officer at Hyundai Motor. “We look forward to exploring new marketing opportunities to communicate with millennials and Gen Z, in particular, about the enormous potential offered by Hyundai’s new robotics in daily life, enabling progress for humanity.”
Photo courtesy of Hyundai
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