A few months ago, we were contacted by Makers of Imaginary Worlds, an enigmatically named organization.

Makers of Imaginary Worlds is a Nottingham-based installation and performing art company, founded by Roma Patel and Rachel Ramchurn, currently artists in residence at the Trust in Autonomous Systems Hub, University of Nottingham. They are driven by the will to propose artistic, immersive, and sensory experiences to the youngest ones.

This year, Makers of Imaginary Worlds presents an innovative experience, an odd circus company: Thingamabobas at Lakeside Arts in Nottingham.

Thingamabobas?

Thingamabobs, in spoken English, refers to a placeholder word for a nonspecific, unknown, or forgotten thing… Which makes sense when discovering how the characters of this wonderful circus have been crafted.

Thingamabobas is a circus company made of mechanized hybrid sculptures, crafted with recycled and sustainable materials. They interact with visitors, who can expect a hypnotic, sensory and delightful experience.

Makers of Imaginary Worlds’ previous experiences used to rely on the participant's sense of touch, to create engaging experiences. Due to Covid-19,  Thingamabobas is now relying on a contactless detection during the visitor's experience. 

Covid-19 forced Roma and Rachel to imagine their new project differently, forgetting touchable interactions and fabrics. They quickly adapted and proposed an experience just as interactive as their previous ones, while reducing the need to touch anything. The idea was then to propose to the public a playful project to awaken the curiosity of children, mainly through body and facial recognition, going beyond a simple human-machine interaction resting on the press of a button. Artificial intelligence became to be a major part of developing this experience.

Ned, the Never-Ending Dancer

We had the pleasure and the chance to discover this amazing project because Makers of Imaginary World contacted us and trusted us to put Ned at the core of this project. 

Ned, the “Never Ending Dancer” (an extremely well-found acronym!) is a cross between a stilt walker and a unicyclist. Equipped with a Real-Sense Depth camera and functioning thanks to image processing and artificial intelligence, Ned can recognize when children are around it. It can then start moving and follow the public’s movements.

You can also find, in the troupe, the Micro Machinearium, the Power Horse, and the Smart Chef! 

The choice of robotics and the implementation of Ned

Including robotics into one of their experiences had been in Makers of Imaginary Worlds’ mind for a few years. Roma and Rachel progressively realized, during their research on the subject, that including a traditional robot or a cobot into their project was too expensive. Nevertheless, they didn’t give up and deepened their research until they found Niryo, and Ned, which seemed perfectly adapted for their project, both in terms of costs and aesthetics. 

Sensors had previously been used in Makers of Imaginary Worlds’ experiences. Yet, Thingamabobas is their first installation to use Machine Learning and Artificial Intelligence. To learn more about these technologies, they initiated themselves on Google’s Machine Learning Crash Course with TensorFlow (if you are interested in Machine Learning, you can check Google’s online courses here. You can also check our application to use TensorFlow and Ned here). Rachel and Roma quickly saw the potential of it and decided to build their new experience around robotics and this technology.

As Roma works in close collaboration with Mixed Reality Lab at the University of Nottingham and recently completed a PhD at the University, she contacted them to ask for help with the development of the project. University of Nottingham is about to launch its own cobotics' laboratory – CoBot Maker Space – in September, loved the idea and decided to involve a few researchers in the implementation of the project. Together, with the choreographer Liz Clark, they worked with the researchers to develop Ned's movements and interactions.

What are the public’s reactions?

This experience has been created for children. Despite the particular atmosphere of this project, because of its music box’ inspired music, low light, and hybrid characters, most of the visitors are amazed by this wonderful show. Some of them, with joy, discover the presence of a robot, some others dance during some long minutes. The reactions are various, but they all respond to Makers of Imaginary Worlds’ will: delight and initiate children to art.

What’s next?

Visit University of Nottingham's CoBot Maker Space (or their website) as of next September to discover a unique and wonderful experience.

You can also find Makers of Imaginary World’s work at University of Nottingham’s Mixed Reality Lab or visit their website to stay tuned about Thingamabobas’ next tour dates!

Also, feel free to contact them if you are interested in hosting the experience!