Meet Benjamin Black of Animétronics. He’s a self-taught robotics enthusiast. Through tinkering, building, and automating robots, Ben has developed a skill set that includes electrical engineering, mechanical design, information technology, and media arts.
Tell us a little bit about yourself and how you got started making things.
I have had an innate interest how things work. At age 3, I had taken apart the classroom’s record player. Before it was time to leave, I had the machine in working order. This is one my mother likes to tell people; I have no true recollection of it. By age 12, simple robotics kits have just become affordable enough to enter the home market. A Parallax BoeBot was my first exposure to robots that could be programmed (barring hardwired BEAM robots like Cybug). I was very unschooled/uncoached in this multidisciplinary venture due to the lack of robotics clubs in my location during that time. I tinkered with little resource or aim. Fortunately, for this upcoming generation, that issue has very much been rectified. Years later, the Arduino platform came on the scene. Well supported and easy to program, the Arduino was a brain without a body unlike ‘ole BoeBot. I had to do something about that! So, with a little coaxing from Instructables and inspiration from a popular video game resulted in my first animatronic replica, GLaDOS.
What does the term “Maker” mean to you?
Initially, I thought the term was simply synonymous with “tinkerer”. However, since my becoming more involved with the corresponding community, it certainly has a myriad of definitions: artisan, craftsman, engineer, mechanic, seamstress, scientist… the list goes on. The most typical common denominator amongst these individuals is that they are usually home-grown pursuits either one person or a small group –business or hobby.
Who or what inspires you?
Who: I could easily repeat the common names and historical figures like Nicola Tesla, Einstein, et. al. But what of the people around today? The amazing SHIN-WALK algorithm of Tomotaka Takahashi. The unbridled enthusiasm and ingenuity of Adam Savage. Michio Kaku, Neil deGrasse Tyson. YouTube channel host like James Xrobot, and Dave Jones of Eevblog to name a few.
What: Science fiction, video games and later animé (hence my blog’s moniker) has certainly been an inspiration. From first seeing Luke Skywalker’s prosthetic hand, the engineered antics of Dr. Robotnik, completely organic computers in Tenchi Muyo, humanoid robots in the Gundam franchise, the list could go on.
Is making your hobby or your business? How does it relate, if at all, to your day job?
Graduating SLCC with an Associate of Science Louisiana Transfer, I have two years left as a student that I’ve yet to complete. What I make is primarily a hobby for me at this time. However they are, vicariously, investments into my portfolio; part of my résumé that (sometimes literally) speaks for itself. I take on hardware IT work freelance, if the job is within my skill set.
Why is making important to you?
Because it is a way I can prove to myself that I exist. This may be a deep philosophical answer, but it’s the most correct one to me. For quite some time I had a lot of theoretical knowledge with no way of applying it. Making closes that loop. To be able interact with people in a way that one was previously unable to through the medium of what one has made. That can be a joy.
What have you made that you are most proud of?
Probably my GLaDOS replica. It was well received at MechaCon 2012, and I won awards for it. To date (to the best of my knowledge) it seems that I am still one of just half a dozen replicas of the character that involve any sort of automation. It is also one that I am most humbled by. The public appearance of GLaDOS caused a snowball of events that opened me up to a lot of like-minded people that I could not have fathomed existed. From being scouted by UL Lafayette’s CAPE project (as a shadow, essentially) to later getting involved with the 501st Legion in conjunction with the R2 Builders Club, it has led to what I would consider quite the personal paradigm shift.
What would you make if you had unlimited resources?
My own company geared towards the biomedical engineering field or the consumer market. Depends on whats most lucrative. But I have unlimited resources, so why not both? Discovering how to make science fiction into scientific reality; it is already happening all the time. Spinal bypass devices to reverse paralysis, nanomachines to aid or replace failing organ tissue, neural-based prosthetics than can feel would just be a few of the R&D endeavors. Some of these concepts are already well into their infancy. The theoretical end of Moore’s law is only a few decades away; as a contemporary to the established quantum chips, organic computing has potential. Diatoms have been “trained” to act as microchip brick masons in multiple labs.
What up-and-coming maker trends excite you the most?
I’m not entirely sure what a Maker trend entails. I’ve seen things succeed and fail on Maker-fueled platforms. What is refreshing though is the fact that larger companies have begun to make economical room for Makers; we are now seen as something worth investing in.
What advice can you give someone who wants to get involved in the Maker movement?
Do your own thing! What is it that you’re passionate about? I was never really involved in groups growing up. Once some of my projects started reaching beyond what one person can do alone, that’s when I became involved. Because the Maker movement is so multidisciplinary, ranging from art to science, there isn’t an exact starting point I can give. For my niche of electronics and automation, I found that sites like Sparkfun, Adafruit, Pololu, (all stores originally) had blogs dedicated to education in their respective fields –needless to say forums. The first two are actually a sort of webring that founded this movement. YouTube channels have also been indispensable. Getting involved is a lot easier now than it was, say, 15 years ago. For local things, Facebook can be a great networking tool.
Tell us something surprising about yourself.
I am entirely self taught.