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This 3D-printed soft robotic hand beat the first level of Super Mario Bros.

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A team led by University of Maryland mechanical engineering Professor Ryan Sochol has created a soft robotic hand agile enough to manipulate a game controller.

A team of engineers at the University of Maryland has built a three-fingered soft robotic hand that is sufficiently agile to be able to manipulate the buttons and directional pad on a Nintendo controller—even managing to beat the first level of Super Mario Bros. as proof of concept, according to a recent paper published in the journal Science Advances. The same team also built two soft robotic turtles (the terrapin turtle is UMD’s official mascot) using the same multimaterial 3D-printing process that produced the robotic hand.

We traditionally think of robots as being manufactured out of hard, rigid materials, but the subfield of soft robotics takes a different approach. It seeks to build robotic devices out of more flexible materials that mimic the properties of those found in living animals. There are huge advantages to be gained by making the entire body of a robot out of soft materials, such as being flexible enough to squeeze through tight spaces to hunt for survivors after a disaster. Soft robots also hold strong potential as prosthetics or biomedical devices. Even rigid robots rely on some soft components, such as foot pads that serve as shock absorbers or flexible springs to store and release energy.

Harvard researchers built an octopus-inspired soft robot in 2016 that was constructed entirely out of flexible materials. But soft robots are more difficult to control precisely because they are so flexible. In the case of the “octobot,” the researchers replaced the rigid electronic circuits with microfluidic circuits. Such circuits involve regulating the flow of water (hydraulics) or air (pneumatics), rather than electricity, through the circuit’s microchannels, enabling the robot to bend and move.

Although this solution is ingenious, it brings its own set of challenges. These include the high cost (clean room facilities are required) and time necessary to fabricate those microfluidic systems and then integrate them with the system as a whole. “Recently, several groups have tried to harness fluidic circuits to enhance the autonomy of soft robots,” said co-author Ruben Acevedo. “But the methods for building and integrating those fluidic circuits with the robots can take days to weeks, with a high degree of manual labor and technical skill.”

As an undergraduate, Acevedo worked in the lab of University of Maryland mechanical engineer Ryan D. Sochol, who was interested in moving beyond having to manually connect fluidic circuitry components to soft robots in favor of embedding these functions directly in the soft robotic systems. His team found the answer in PolyJet 3D printing, in which several different layers of materials are stacked on top of each other. The printer sets down one liquid layer, lets it solidify, then sets down the next layer, and so on.

Enlarge / University of Maryland mechanical engineer Ryan D. Sochol shows off his team’s soft robotic hand.

YouTube/UMD A. James Clark School of Engineering

“The incorporation of materials that differ in rigidity serves to enhance performance by allowing the material properties of specific features to be tailored to complement desired functionalities,” Sochol et al. wrote in their paper. Components like diaphragms and O-rings must be able to deform during operation, so a soft rubber-like material was used to make them, while a more rigid, plastic-like material was chosen to make components that need to be stable (fluidic channels, access ports, and structural casings, for instance). Finally, the team used a water-soluble material to serve as scaffolding during the printing process, which was then removed from both the exterior and internal voids and channels—first by dissolving the stuff with water, then manually removing whatever scaffolding material remained.

Microfluidically controlled soft robots typically require distinct control inputs for every independently operated soft actuator. By integrating the fluidic circuit, the UMD team could operate the hand by varying the pressure strength between low, medium, and high. In other words, a single source of fluid could send different signals just by changing the pressure, so that each finger could move independently. Even better, the one-step 3D-printing process for the hand and the two turtle-bots—encompassing soft actuators (moving parts), the fluidic circuits, and robot body—took a matter of hours, not days or weeks.

The team tested the performance of the robotic hand by having it play Super Mario Bros. To make Mario walk, the team used a low pressure, so only the first finger pressed the controller. The researchers used a medium pressure to make Mario run and a high pressure to make the hand press the correct button on the controller to get Mario to jump.

The soft robotic hand plays a round of <em>Super Mario Bros.</em>
Enlarge / The soft robotic hand plays a round of Super Mario Bros.

YouTube/UMD A. James Clark School of Engineering

As for why they chose Super Mario Bros., Sochol told Scientific American that it was the very first Nintendo game he had played as a child. But the choice wasn’t just a matter of nostalgia. The timing and specifics of the game are well-established; the robot hand simply needed to time its responses in accordance with the preprogrammed moves. And there are actual consequences for failure: a single mistake will cost Mario a life. The hand performed so well, it was able to successfully beat the first level of the game in less than 90 seconds.

“We are freely sharing all of our design files so that anyone can readily download, modify on demand, and 3D print—whether with their own printer or through a printing service like us— all of the soft robots and fluidic circuit elements from our work,” said Sochol, who estimates that printing one’s own soft robots would cost about $100 using the team’s software on GitHub. “It is our hope that this open-source 3D printing strategy will broaden accessibility, dissemination, reproducibility, and adoption of soft robots with integrated fluidic circuits and, in turn, accelerate advancement in the field.”

DOI: Science Advances, 2021. 10.1126/sciadv.abe5257  (About DOIs).

Listing image by University of Maryland

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Valve moves Dota 2 International to Romania, adds mask-and-vax rules

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Valve announced this week that its prestigious Dota 2 tournament The International will require all attendees to be fully masked and vaccinated for entry.

As noted on the Dota 2 site, anyone attending the October competition at the National Arena in Bucharest, Romania, must be at least 10 days out from their final vaccination, and attendees will need to present proof of inoculation (which must be in either English or Romanian) along with a photo ID to gain access to the event grounds and tournament arena. All attendees must also wear a mask and proof-of-vaccination wristband along with their registration badges. Additional safety protocols will be put into place throughout the tournament.

Now in its tenth year, The International gathers together the best Dota 2 teams from around the globe to compete for a multi-million dollar prize pool.  But over the past year, Valve has not had an easy time with COVID-related restrictions for its annual tournament. The company’s initial plans to hold The International 10 in Stockholm were scrapped earlier this summer after the Swedish Sports Federation decided not to include esports in its officially recognized body—a move that meant anyone traveling for the tournament would be denied an entry visa.

Valve’s subsequent requests for the Swedish government to intervene were denied, with the company announcing the move to Romania in July. (2020’s tournament, which was also planned to be held in Stockholm, was indefinitely delayed in April 2020 over safety concerns amidst the global pandemic.)

The move to make The International a fully-vaccinated, fully-masked tournament is just the latest in a growing trend of gaming events tightening up COVID restrictions. For instance, this summer’s PAX West in Seattle required attendees to present either proof-of-vaccination or a negative PCR test for entry, as well as wearing a vaccination-proof wristband along with their registration badges.

The International 10’s group stage, which doesn’t appear to be open to the public, will be held October 7-10, while the main stage tournament event (the only stage Valve is selling tickets for) will be split between two midweeks running from October 12-15. The finals are scheduled to be held on October 16 and 17. Tickets for the main stage will go on sale September 22, and those are sold in three separate two-day bundles.

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RIP Sir Clive Sinclair, creator of UK’s famed ZX Spectrum gaming computer

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Enlarge / Sir Clive Sinclair holding the world’s smallest television screen when it was created by Sinclair Radionics in 1977.

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Sir Clive Sinclair, the namesake of a British electronics manufacturer who helped pioneer Europe’s microcomputing boom, is dead at the age of 81.

His company, Sinclair Radionics, is arguably best known around the world for 1982’s ZX Spectrum, an early example of a computer capable of multi-color, real-time graphics. The device dominated the UK and other European territories in the early 1980s. This computer was a major processing step up from black-and-white Spectrum computers like ZX80 and ZX81, and it debuted in a configuration priced as low as £125. American readers probably best know this platform thanks to popular and ambitious ZX Spectrum games from the little developer Ultimate: Play The Game. That company eventually rebranded itself as Rareware and turned into a ’90s powerhouse on Nintendo consoles.

Yet before his name became interminably linked to gaming history, Sinclair’s rise to running his own electronics manufacturing company largely resembles the stories of American electronics pioneers who began as garage hobbyists. A BBC documentary, Clive Sinclair: The Pace Setters, chronicles the inventor’s rise, which began with him selling one-at-a-time radio kits via mail order in the 1960s.

As the documentary is region-locked, many readers will have to settle on this BBC text version of its highlights, which follows Sinclair’s rise as a maker of British pocket calculators and portable TVs before redirecting his efforts to personal computers. During this time, an effort to get the British government to back Sinclair as a formally supported PC maker, especially as the government began bullishly promoting computer access in homes and schools, fell apart. Instead, rival computer manufacturer Curry became a “BBC Micro” partner. Sinclair and Spectrum fired back with the more powerful ZX Spectrum, which went on to sell over 5 million units. Sadly, the rest of his career didn’t reach the same heights, and it was largely marked by botched efforts to launch electric modes of transport, including the famous failure that was the pod-like C5 “car.”

For a charming Clive-on-Clive conversation, check out this 1990 interview with longtime British TV host Clive Anderson (Whose Line Is It Anyway?), complete with the two men looking at and talking about various Spectrum inventions over the years—including, incredibly, Sinclair’s failed C5.

Sir Clive Sinclair talks about his product history in 1990.

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Battlefield 2042 joins recent game-delay frenzy, moves to November

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Enlarge / This looks fun.

Battlefield 2042 has been delayed from its initial October 22 release date, though it will still launch this year, EA announced today. The multiplayer-only shooter will now hit stores on November 19, the publisher said in a statement.

Citing the complications of developing games in a work-from-home environment during a global pandemic—by now a familiar challenge for the countless game makers that have had to delay other high-profile 2021 games—DICE assured fans that the team is working on finishing touches rather than dealing with any kind of development trouble. The developer also reiterated that there would be updates later this month regarding 2042‘s open beta. In other words, this is pandemic business as usual.

After Battlefield 2042‘s reveal during EA’s June E3 news blitz, the publisher announced that the game will feature three modes, none of which are battle royale-related. “All-Out Warfare,” the traditional BF deathmatch mode, is finally upgrading to 128 players on current-gen consoles and PC. “Battlefield Portal” is a mashup game that lets players customize matches with elements of Battlefield 1942, Battlefield: Bad Company 2, and Battlefield 3 inside 2042 maps. “Hazard Zone” is an alleged squad-based mode that EA has thus far been mum on. Today’s announcement didn’t specify whether all three modes would launch with the game.

As far as the seemingly endless train of 2021 delays is concerned, DICE’s isn’t as bad as it could be. Earlier this week, Techland confirmed its long-in-production Dying Light 2 is being pushed back to February 2, while Ubisoft announced this week that its guitar-instruction game Rocksmith+ is shifting to 2022. Sony also recently announced that Horizon Forbidden West will move to February 28 from its original “late 2021” launch.

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