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August 3, 1998


On the surface, biomechanical engineering students and modern dancers don't seem to have very much in common. One area is hard science, the other, pure art. But by bringing the two together in a collaborative effort to create a performing robot, the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, set the stage for greater understanding and appreciation between the fields of art and science.

When Doug Hamby, assistant professor of fine arts, called Tony Farquhar, assistant professor of mechanical engineering, he wasn't sure Farquhar would take him seriously. After all, Hamby was asking Farquhar and his students to use their engineering and computer programming skills to create a dancer. Farquhar admits that he was skeptical, but Hamby's vision of an integration of modern technology with modern dance convinced him and his students to get involved. Now, six months later, "Maurice," a spunky yellow robot with six legs, one arm and a saucy attitude, is performing at venues throughout the region, including this year's "Fringe Festival" in Manhattan, August 19-23.

"As high-tech continues to be a driving force in our economy, colleges and universities are working hard to ensure that students are prepared in the appropriate fields," said Farquhar. "However, some are becoming concerned that this emphasis is widening the gap between the arts and sciences, a division which is becoming less practical as technology continues to find its way into our day-to-day lives."

Building Maurice (PDR-1A to his technical creators), and the work leading to his performance represents a unique collaboration between dance, technology and education. It took nearly 20 UMBC students, guided by Farquhar, to build Maurice and three dedicated programers were called on to write the hundreds of lines of code required to inspire Maurice to follow Hamby's intricate choreography.

"I'd never even thought of using computer programming to teach a robot how to dance. I had no idea the kind of work involved in dancing." said Todd McCleaf, one of Maurice's key programmers. "Not only did this project teach me more than any basic computer course could have, but I now know more about dancing than I ever would have otherwise."

This admiration for the efforts of a completely different field is shared by Maurice's fellow performers, the members of Doug Hamby Dance. As choreographer for Maurice and his flesh-and-bone counterparts, Hamby found that as with humans, Maurice's dancing is limited to the movements that his body can make. It was this similarity that made the robot seem that much more "real."

"Maurice has shown me just how smart Mother Nature was when she created the human body," Hamby said. "Farquhar's team of students has done incredible work 'teaching' Maurice how to move. The hours and hours of programmer required just to get Maurice to do a dip was remarkable." "We want our students to be extremely well prepared in their chosen fields," said UMBC President Freeman Hrabowski, III. "We also want them to gain exposure to other, sometimes seemingly opposite areas of study and interest. Isn't that what learning is largely all about?"

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Posted by dwinds1 at August 3, 1998 12:00 AM