Thinking Outside the Box
Computer science major uses technology from the Xbox to create a robot that can mimic human movements
Amir Hessabi has always had a passion for technology. As a computer science major, staying up to date on new uses and innovations in technology is crucial to maintaining relevance and developing new ideas.
For the past two years, Hessabi has been using some of the latest technology to develop a robot that is capable of mimicking the motion of humans. He is working on the project with his advisor and computer science professor, Walt Potter, as well as physics professor Steve Alexander and shop manager Gerry Wade.
Hessabi’s project was inspired by the movie “Real Steel,” an action movie starring Hugh Jackman that is set in the future. One of the robots in the movie has the ability to imitate the movements of humans.
In the summer of 2013, Hessabi was able to create and program a robotic arm about the size of a human arm with the ability to move. In the fall of 2013, the project evolved into an entire robotic body. Hessabi applied for and received a King Creativity Grant to fund the project. After being approved for the grant, Hessabi considered how best to move forward.
“I started using the Xbox Kinect and played around with it a lot,” he said. “I wrote the program so that it would calculate the angles using the data points that the Kinect sensor outputs, then communicate commands to the actual robotic body.”
After working extensively with the Xbox Kinect over winter break, Hessabi decided to incorporate its sensor into his design and began building the rest of the robotic body and the motors. He has been documenting his progress on YouTube and Twitter, and has gained a community of followers, including Southwestern University President Dr. Edward Burger.
In April 2014, Hessabi presented a poster and demonstrated the abilities of his robot, “Bones,” at the 25th annual conference of the South Central Consortium for Computing Sciences in Colleges hosted at St. Edwards University in Austin. He ended up taking second place for his poster presentation.
After that, Microsoft selected Hessabi to be one of 500 developers who received a new Kinect in advance of the official product rollout. He is using the new Kinect to help him program his robot to move in three dimensions instead of just two.
“This gives us the ability to continue working with more points on the body and recording and analyzing more data,” Hessabi said.
As a result of his contacts at Microsoft, Hessabi was invited to participate in a 24-hour programming competition called the NUI Central Kinect for Windows Hackathon 2014. He was the only undergraduate in the competition.
With the help of funding from the SCOPE program at Southwestern, Hessabi was able to go to New York City in June 2014 to participate in the competition. When he got to New York, Hessabi met several other people with similar interests, and they teamed up on a project that involved programming a hand to mimic human motion. Their project won second place out of about 18 teams that participated.
“The competition was phenomenal,” Hessabi said. “I was really surprised we won.” Hessabi said the competition was the first time he had coded in a programming language called C#.
Hessabi said he plans to keep in touch with several of the people he met at the competition and would like to go to Germany in the summer of 2015 to work with one of them. His next project is to print his own 3-D model of a hand that he can program.
Eventually, he hopes to turn “Bones” into his capstone project or an honors thesis.