Marc Raibert on lessons learned from Atlas’ dance skills

Marc Raibert Atlas dancing

Boston Dynamics founder Marc Raibert standing with the Atlas humanoid. | Credit: Associated Press

We’ve learned a lot over the last month about how Boston Dynamics’ robots became such talented dancers. We now know the RBR50 company employed human dancers, reflexive control, simulation and new Choreographer software, among many other techniques.

But we’ve yet to hear from Marc Raibert, founder, former CEO, and now chairman of Boston Dynamics. Until now.

In a video below from the Associated Press, Raibert talked about the challenges involved with Atlas. He discusses iterating through programming of the dance moves, stringing them together with software, and coordinating the movements of four robots.

But perhaps the most important part of the interview is his explanation about why Boston Dynamics pursued this project, which took 1.5 years from start to finish. I’ve read a lot of comments downplaying the skills of the robots and questioning Boston Dynamics’ decision to spend so much time on making them dance. It’s never been about the dancing, per se. It’s about what can be learned along the way about the robot’s robustness, controls, and skills.

“The project let us look at the physicality of [Atlas],” he said in the video. “It turned out we needed to upgrade the robot in the middle of development in order for it to be strong enough and have enough energy to do the whole performance without stopping. That was a real benefit to the design of the robot.

“We also designed the motion programming tools, the ones that let it reconcile, balance bouncing and the fact it’s doing a performance all at the same time. We went from having crude tools for doing that to having very effective, rapid generation tools so that by the time we were done, we could generate new dances steps very quickly and integrate them into the performance.”

Raibert also reiterated in the video the need to balance Boston Dynamics’ short- and long-term goals. “Our job is to try and stretch the boundaries of what robots can do, both in terms of the outer research boundary, but also in terms of practical applications.”

Hyundai Motor recently acquired a controlling stake Boston Dynamics for about $880 million. Hyundai became the third owner of Boston Dynamics in seven years. It was acquired by Google in 2013 and sold to Softbank Group in 2017.

Michael Patrick Perry, vice president for business development at Boston Dynamics, joined us on The Robot Report Podcast a couple of weeks ago to discuss the Hyundai acquisition. He also said the company has some interesting things up its sleeve for 2021, including a gripper for Spot, updates on Atlas and Handle and more. At the time of the interview, he said about 400 Spot robots had been sold since it was commercialized in June 2020. You can listen to the podcast below.

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