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Robot band obsesses over online popularity

  • Story Highlights
  • The Cybraphon robot plays music based on its mood
  • The success of the robot's online social networks determines its mood
  • Three U.K. artists made the robot over eight months
  • Robot is a "comment on people's obsession with online celebrity," creator says
By Priya Ganapati
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(WIRED) -- Like an aspiring indie band, the Cybraphon has many instruments, plays them on an irregular schedule, likes to have an audience around it -- and obsesses over comments on its blog, the number of friends it has on Facebook and how many fans follow it on MySpace.

The Cybraphon plays music based on how well its blog and social networking pages are doing.

The Cybraphon plays music based on how well its blog and social networking pages are doing.

The difference is that it is a handcrafted musical robot and one whose emotion meter swings from delirium to desolation based on its online popularity at any given moment.

"The Cybraphon has an almost egotistical desire for fame," says Simon Kirby, one of the creators of the robot.

When the needle hits rapture, the Cybraphon's built-in orchestra of mechanized acoustic instruments clang in harmony to belt out an upbeat tune. But without online attention it slips into dejection and spews out a sad melody.

Three U.K. based artists -- Kirby, Ziggy Campbell and Tommy Pheron -- built the robot over eight months using a £5,000 grant. It's a mechanical marvel that stuns with its attention to detail and construction. An antique wardrobe houses more than 60 robotic components including musical instruments such as cymbals and an organ as well as electronic parts including a PC and a controller. Kirby and his colleagues first created a sketch of what they wanted and then sourced the parts from antique stores, junk shops and donations.

The Cybraphon's emotions are accessible via a Twitter feed but also appear on a on a 100 year-old galvanometer housed in the wardrobe (pictured above).

Kirby says the Cybraphon is devised as a "tongue-in-cheek comment on people's obsession with online celebrity." And it is almost Julia Allison-esque in its quest for attention. The device scours the web all day looking for mentions of itself and tracking how many friends it has on Facebook and MySpace.

"It is happy when it feels its popularity increases but is miserable if it is being ignored," says Kirby.

The musical instruments inside the wardrobe include an Indian classical instrument called a Shruti box, an organ and cymbals. But they had to be tweaked to play on their own. The team attached a motor-driven crank to the drives of the Shruti box and modified it with 13 robotic servos. The organ was retro-fitted with robotic keys while a fan pumps air through it. Cybraphon includes 12 chimes that are struck by suspended solenoids and percussion instruments that are hit by beaters attached to motors. A custom made vinyl record is cued to play through antique brass gramophone horns.

The Cybraphon also has infra-red based motion detectors to sense when there are people around it. It then comes alive, playing the music that is driven by its current mood.

"The Cybraphon is switched on all the time but it really wakes up when someone walks up to it," says Kirby.

The brain of the system is a Macbook Pro notebook hidden inside one of the drawers of the wardrobe. "That, a few Arduino boards and lots of wire," says Kirby.

The computer runs software written in Python and MAX/MSP to monitor the web and update Cybraphon's emotions according to its rate at which its popularity is changing. "The software takes email alerts from Facebook, Google and so on, processes them and compares the current activity to that in the last 24 or 48 hours to calculate the rate of change," explains Kirby.

But no matter how much attention the Cybraphon gets, it always eventually slips into depression, says Kirby. That means online attention could cheer up the Cybraphon in the short term but once the initial excitement dies down, the robot is disillusioned. "We modeled it on an insecure, egotistical band," he says.

Though the Cybraphon's current mood is accessible via Twitter, and you can follow it on Facebook or MySpace, its music is not available online. However, you can watch a demo video of it here.

"A streaming feed, although perhaps a nice idea, is possibly too literal," says Ziggy Campbell, one of the creators of the Cybraphon. "Regular bands don't stream live performances all day long and neither does Cybraphon. It keeps things more exclusive."

The Cybraphon will be shown at the Inspace gallery in Edinburgh during the Edinburgh Art Festival in August.

Campbell says the Cybraphon's continued existence amuses him.

"Bands by their very nature tend to be volatile and prone to implosion," he says. "I'm surprised that the Cybraphon, a highly neurotic beast with some questionable electrical wiring, hasn't hit self destruct yet."

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Copyright 2009

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