Upon my visit to the eatART lab, it was a dark and stormy night. The Vancouver tech scene is not always so couched in cliches (nor should it be), but the pouring rain made a fitting backdrop for that night’s encounter. What I came to see that night is all that the Vancouver tech scene is, and hopes to be, in exaggeration.
The eatART Lab, conjoined to the the Centre for Digital Media, was re-opened for my arrival on that damp, cold Wednesday by Jonathan Tippett, expert mechanical engineer and Principle Artist at eatART. The MondoSpider slept peaceably in a trailer just outside the lab, curled up beneath the Titanoboa, the eatART team’s robotic incarnation of a long-lost primordial snake. The lab is now home to the AlphaLeg, a prototype at 2:3 scale for the leg of a robotic exoskeleton, called Prosthesis.
The leg stands mounted on a trailer that fills nearly a quarter of the lab. It’s ten feet tall–when Tippett revives it the clenching whir of hydraulics fills the air. Its controller is composed of a bicycle seat, safety belts, and a gauntlet.
Once seated, the arm draws back, propels forward, and the leg extends like a leviathan’s crutch. The term “crutch” belies its power. The leg currently has 130 horsepower; the power of a full Prosthesis will be double that.
To understand how the Prosthesis will move, consider the gait of a gorilla, with its two arms extending to draw the legs in to meet it. Now consider that gait on a five-metre-tall contraption built out of what could wind up being 5,000 lbs of steel, and you have some idea what the Prosthesis will be.
The legs curl and extend, but neither the hip nor the knee can turn in and out the way a human leg can. Turning is accomplished through staggered propulsion of legs on either side of the chassis. The Prosthesis is meant for racing, and (for now) racing alone.
“The reason I use racing as a reference is because people understand it. It’s really about human performance and human skill; I come from a snowboarding, martial arts perspective, where it’s a person pushing their own limits to reach a high level of skill in conjunction with a machine,” explains Tippett. “I love tuning up my mountain bike, RC cars, things where it’s about getting in the zone. It’s about reaching your maximum potential. I wanted to make a machine that would be a thrill to ride and a challenge to operate.”
True to his patronage of Burning Man, Tippett has no desire to see his technology used as weaponry; fans of Pacific Rim will have to look elsewhere if they want to see a robotic exoskeleton used destructively. Tippett’s response to the suggestion emerges as soon as the word “destruction” leaves my mouth.
“I reject that categorically. I refuse to be part of the military industrial complex,” he says. “There are lots of people and lots of companies in lots of states pursuing military technology. I am offering this as a counterpoint to that. A lot of military R&D robotic applications are aimed at getting humans out of it at all costs. This machine is built for humans by humans to give an experience for the pilots. Drones, mechanizations, telepresences. It’s totally contrary to the thrust of the military robotics program.”
The Alpha Leg won’t be here very much longer—by the end of February, Tippett and the rest of the Prosthesis team will be working from another facility. Their exact future location is, as of yet, unknown. But Tippett is undisturbed. His primary focus right now is the last push of the Indiegogo campaign, now in its final week. With an end goal of $100,000, the campaign now sits with a third of its goal earned.
“Don’t you want to see this thing exist? For generations, people have been envisioning this kind of machine. It’s been represented in comics and movies and cartoons in a hundred different formats,” Tippett enthuses. “This is an age-old human impulse, to build a machine like this. So we are really just fulfilling a long-standing human desire to create a machine that operates like this. Not a robot, not anything that does it for you, but something that celebrates a human skill. This is beyond a business model.”
“Just imagine this whole thing looming, in this entire space,” he entreats of me, just before I go. To see more of the Prosthesis, visit their campaign’s website.