Parallax Insider News

The Value of Silly

  • By: Stephanie Lindsay Published: 05 December, 2013 1 comments
Maybe it is a touch of sleep deprivation after meeting a big deadline. Or perhaps my thin professional veneer wears through in spots to expose what’s underneath.  But the truth is, though I take my responsibilities at Parallax very seriously, once in a while I get just plain silly.  If you see a small Parallax robot hitch-hiking, wearing a hat, or simply reading the paper, it’s likely my “silly” has struck again.
I am not alone, and I am glad. I am surrounded by well-developed creative minds here.
For example, my colleague Jessica (who doesn’t get nearly enough time to be silly these days) apparated by my desk last summer. She requested a pair of reading glasses for her ActivityBot, just as our intern Forrest was looking for a Friday afternoon project.  Bingo! He promptly designed and laser-cut a pair of frames.  Brilliant!  Recently, my own ActivityBot borrowed them to catch up on local news, and we snapped this photo for the “Extras” section of their tutorial.
My colleague Courtney elevated silliness to new heights.  My Polite ActivityBot just wears a demure hair bow and speaks to you nicely. Her KittyBot sports furry ears, whiskers, and a tail.  KittyBot meows, purrs, and even hisses if YOU are not polite! Now that’s some awesome silly!
Adding the element of silliness to a project doesn’t have to take much extra time, or any at all.  For example, in the Clear the Table competition idea, the ‘bot needed objects to push out of the ring. Why push plain old blocks around, when you can plow through a field of waving solar daisies?
That’s “cherry on top” silly — adding a bit of fun to something I was already doing.   But it can have a deeper value. Sometimes “silly,” instead of utility, is what inspires and motivates.
I must confess that when Courtney asked me to come up with a winter-themed ActivityBot project recently, what really enthused me was the silly idea of hand-knitting a scarf for my robot (and making teeny, tiny earmuffs too!) while I’m home for the holidays.  I took that energy back to my desk, dashed out the pseudo-code in minutes, and dove right into new C programming territory.  I’m aiming for another project and a tutorial or two by the time I’m done.
Giving life to the little ActivityBot character all dressed for winter in my head? Strongly motivating! Researching C pointers for no apparent purpose? Not so much.
I’ve met wise teachers who leverage silliness (though under worthier names) in their robotics programs:
  • Designing, 3-D printing, and painting SumoBot shells, to give each robot wrestler a unique character.
  • Keeping a blog of the robot’s and roboticist’s adventures throughout the semester.
  • Sending a pin-prickled hunter robot chasing after balloon-festooned robot prey.
Silliness is relatable and memorable. It engages students who might think robotics is boring or even intimidating.  In a team setting, it places value on the members who enjoy art, writing, performing, and music, not just the budding programmers and the mechanically inclined.  This is good training for the work world where different kinds of thinkers need to know how to cooperate. And, it is good for future inventors to be aware of the aesthetics that make inventions appealing to future users.
So I encourage all you roboticists to “get your silly on,” or if you have none, find a silly friend to help let your robot’s personality shine through.  Your robots will appreciate it too – they are a fun group of folks.  And they really know how to throw a party!   And if you don’t yet have a robot buddy, consider inviting one home for the holidays.
Stephanie Lindsay
Parallax Content Strategist



Well done, STEPHANIE.
Today you have made my engineering workload a lot easier, reminded me to include a fun part into my projects. Reading about your various sillies I have decided to dress up my bot as a nerdy assistant in a white mini lab coat. The bot (my own) started out as a plain boebot. has morphed variously into a 3foot high "Johnny 5" variant , a video cam and sound equipped 24 inch-tank treaded night warehouse watchdog (temporary duty).
It has a Propeller brain and a BasicStamp2 + SX I/O handlers. It is mostly an automation design/test platform.
Jaime Webster (JWC)