The idea of redesigning our animatronic products came after a discussion with one of our clients, the SNCF TGV train station in AIX.
Over the last 2 years, we have been redesigning and updating their showroom and adding new touchscreen consoles, a fan hologram, and reimagining all of their content. We wanted to create a better balance of INFOTAINMENT, offering information in a fun and engaging way. One of these ways was by creating a virtual ambassador called "AIX-TRA" (pronounced "extra"), that would welcome you and guide you through the touch screen options.
The result was fun and quickly expanded on, by adding a giant screen in the main hall, showing an animation of "AIX-TRA" pointing you towards their "AIX-perience : Showroom" at the far side of the train station.
Then Covid-19 hit, and interaction between on-site personnel and the train station visitors (5.5 million* in 2019 ) became more of a risk factor. So as an add-on to the showroom we decided to propose "AIX-TRA 2.0", a reimagining of our now almost 2-year-old virtual robot, but with a twist... we proposed to make it REAL.
So this is where the real story starts.
We started figuring out what we wanted "AIX-TRA" to do. It should interact with visitors, explain to them the basics of the showroom, and it should have the possibility to evolve. It should look friendly, engaging, and more advanced than the virtual "AIX-TRA 1.0" that you can find on the screens throughout the train station.
Design and prototyping
We pulled out our old fashion pencils and sketchbooks, to figure out some basic questions:
how should it move?
how many moving parts and joints should it have?
how should it behave, smooth or very robotic and angular?
how big should it be?
and simply what should it look like?
We like to use whiteboards and sketch pads to work out the basic problems, and at least eliminate what we don't want. This sketch and design phase, here in our office, actually works very similar to some clients briefs:
"...We DON'T yet know what we want, BUT we DO know what we don't want..."
So with the basic outlines on the way, we start to look at the technical part, and for us, even before 3D printing any REAL prototypes, we like to use the "MacGuyver" technique. Grabbing cardboard, some tape, and some small servomotors, and just "play" with the problem. It's fast and easy to modify and gives us a good insight into what could be possible. Also, it is a good way to learn about and to predict potential problems along the way, as you see the purest form of the motion without any varnish of a sleek design.
This gives us the confidence to start really prototyping. A testing rig for the potential motion was built and simulated in 3D and then printed out. Prototyping is important, as it allows us to see REAL motion, test different ways of coding, and test the limits of our ideas.
In the case of "AIX-TRA 2.0" design, we tried a few different techniques, most made it but some were not "stable" enough and would bug or block over time (for example, the shoulder lifting joints were sent to the trash bin).
Setting new rules
Making prototypes made us discover something really important.
While sharing our progress with some of our clients, it soon became evident that this period (during Covid-19) was a really good moment to develop a new "animatronic ambassador". Many of our clients showed interest and kept asking us for updates on its development. Our social media following also started to grow suddenly after posting about AIX-TRA's progress on Instagram.
This is when we realized that we should take it a lot further. This is where we started to create "the modular aspect" of our new robot. We went back to the drawing-board "literally" and redesigned every single piece. Now we can add an "unlimited" amount of joints, arms, or even heads to our robot without having to redesign a single piece. But as it soon turned out adding joints was the easy part! Coding it and keeping track of the code was a whole other ball game.
We created modular nodes of code (for the non-coders among us... that's "Latin" for boxes with pre-written code that do actions and by stacking one box of code on the other we can create a chain of actions.... animation), that allowed us to create a quicker more visual workflow. But we had another ACE up our sleeve.
For those who don't know, we have our origins in 3D Computer Animation for films and are very used to animating rigged systems to create motion. So we came up with our proprietary "Bridge" software allowing us to animate in 3D software and then sending the data directly to our robot. This not only cuts down on animation time but also allows us to create a pre-visualization for our clients.
When It all comes together
After a smooth assembling, we tested for 2 weeks 24/7 our little "AIX-TRA" in our office before sending it out into the real world. We can honestly say this was a work of love, passion, and dedication.
After installing "AIX-TRA" in the display case at the train station, we felt an emotional wave as it came to life in its new home. It was a mix of pride and happiness, but also a little feeling of loss, as "AIX-TRA" had been in our office during the first covid wave. But it also meant it was build right, it did not feel like just a ROBOT, it felt and looked like something that you want to be close to.
The next step
AIX-TRA can now be seen at the AIX-TGV train station (in Aix-en-Provence), but here at Technology Based Magic, we haven't stopped. We have created customizable skins, where we can make the next robot look like your mascot, wear your companies colors or uniform. or even have your company logo shine and light up in its chest plate.
We are looking into building some rental units too, and are adding more interaction possibilities to our models.
If you are interested in our "animated ambassadors" or have any questions or requests, please contact us through our webpage or at firstname.lastname@example.org