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The Foxee Animatronic Robot Project Blog

Archives for: July 2005

Some Concerns Brought Up About My Mad Scientist Skit

Posted by: The Mad Scientist

The other night, a member of the Midwest Furfest Variety Show e-mail list brought up several concerns that he had about my Mad Scientist Foxee skit that I was considering doing at this year's Midwest Furfest Variety Show, and since his concerns were legitimate I thought that I would repost them and discuss them here. His concerns focused on many aspects of my proposed Foxee skit, including its length, the safety of some of the high-voltage stage props that I was planning to use for my skit's special effects, and the reliability of the technology that I was using in my Foxee robot. Here were his concerns:

1) Five minutes on stage is a long time. Holding the audience's attention for more than three is often problematic, and little/nothing happens for the first few minutes of your sketch.

First of all, I am not quite sure if my skit will even take up an entire 5 minutes. I don't have the dialog for the skit written yet, and until that it written and the skit is read through and timed, I won't really know for sure how long or short the skit is. I guessed that the skit would be about 5 minutes in length based several assumptions. First, the Mad Scientist will need a minute in the beginning to give his monologue explaining his experiment and why he is doing it to set up the setting and the story of the skit. Secondly, the "It's alive!" special effects sequence will take up some time because I plan to act very dramatically throughout it by doing crazy things like yelling, evilly laughing, ducking in case something explodes, etc. After that the Mad Scientist will meet Foxee or the first time as she comes to life, and will have to ask her how she feels and if she is operating properly. Once the first-meeting formalities have been completed, the Mad Scientist will go straight into "Phase II" of his experiment where he tries to pick up Foxee with some very nerdy sounding pickup lines, such as "You can be an acid and I can be a base, and together we can make some heat!", "You must have a lot of lactic acid build-up in your legs because you have been running through my mind all day!", or "How would you like to see if my hardware interfaces with your software?" Foxee would naturally be shocked by the question, and that would cause the 30-seconds or so of back and forth sarcastic snappy dialog that would culminate with the Mad Scientist getting frustrated and announcing to the audience about how he just found a new lab animal to try out his brand new death ray on. So there really is a lot going on, and I have confidence that the crazy personality and funky accent that I plan to use for my Mad Scientist character will be able to hold the audience's attention for the duration of my monologue.

2) I think I can guarantee that having HV discharges and the like on stage will be absolutely verboten. Hotels and fire marshals tend to get antsy about this kind of thing.

Plasma balls, strobe lights, and lumina discs are all common novelty decorative displays of electricity and light, and all three of those items these days can be purchased at any local Radio Shack, Fry's Electronics, or even Wal*Mart. I own most of these devices already, and they are very safe. As far as the Jacob's Ladder goes, I probably won't even be able to build one because it will cost me about $100 to do so, and since I am not even quite sure how I am going to scrap together enough money to build the Foxee on time, I doubt I will have a lot of money to spare on a minor detail like a set prop. However, if I do end up being able to build one, I have the plans on how to build one that uses non-lethal amounts of electrical current and has a safety cut-off circuit that will automatically shut the device off if somebody decides to stick their hand into the flowing lightning bolt. That is the design that I am planning to use, and there shouldn't be any problems with it-- especially considering the fact that it's only going to be turned on for about 10-seconds during the skit anyway.

Hypothetically, even if I did end up building a more dangerous version of a Jacob's Ladder without any safety devices built into it, and it used more dangerous components such as a television flyback transformer to produce the lightning effect, it would still only be a shock hazard if somebody was foolish enough to stick their hand into the device while it is turned on. And once again since I plan for the device to be all by itself up on stage while it is powered on during the short time it is needed during the performance, the chance that someone could get right up next to the device to be hurt by it should be highly unlikely. In addition, high voltage devices many times more dangerous than my proposed Jacob's Ladder, such as a 400,000 volt Tesla coil that could throw 12-foot bolts of lightning were demonstrated by other people at the DucKon 14 Science Fiction Convention earlier this summer without incident. That just goes to show you that when precautions are taken, these displays of electrical power are really not much to worry about. None the less, since I probably won't even be able to build a Jacob's Ladder in time for the Midwest Furfest convention anyway, I won't start worrying about it until I actually have one built. It would be pre-mature for me to get worked up about it right now.

3) The idea is pretty funny, but can you be certain all the mechanical effects will work perfectly?

As much as I hate to say it, no I can't be entirely sure at this time that everything is going to work, especially since I haven't gotten past the design phase on Foxee yet. Even if I was further along with building Foxee however, I still would have to ask if anyone can ever be 100% certain that every mechanical device that they use will always work perfectly. Even NASA screws up every once in a while, such as they did with Apollo I, Apollo XIII, the Space Shuttle Challenger, the Space Shuttle Columbia, the Mars Observer, the Mars Polar Lander, etc. The best I can do is test my Foxee robot and all of my electrical effects thoroughly both before the convention and on-site before the variety show, bring spare parts and tools to do emergency on-site repairs if the need arises, and be prepared to ad-lib an ending to my skit in case something still goes hay-wire with Foxee during the skit and the performance cannot be completed as intended.

In any case, I do very much appreciate the member of the Midwest Furfest Mailing List who brought up these concerns, because they make me think about potential problems that I might not have otherwise considered. I am extremely new to the world of furry conventions, costuming, animatronics, and putting on stage shows, so I am absolutely sure that what I am up to is not perfect and that I haven't thought of everything. I very much appreciate people bringing issues like this to my attention, so if anyone else has any concerns or suggestions, please let me know!

Microcontrollers, Light Pipes, and a Trip To Sci Plus!

Posted by: The Mad Scientist

While laying in bed and trying to go to sleep a couple of nights ago, I let my mind begin to wander with thoughts of developing new vixen cartoon characters that could maybe one day also be turned into talking animatronic animal robots. All of a sudden inspiration hit me like a sledge hammer on the head, and I came up with a fantastic idea that made me so excited that I could barely fall asleep that night! This idea for a new animatronic robot character was so exciting (at least to me) that I had a mini-obsession about it and have spent the last two weeks researching the technology behind it! What is this great fantastic idea do you ask? I would love to tell you, since it will probable be a year or two before I can turn this great new idea into a reality, I will have to keep this a secret project for now. I will tell you this about my new project however-- it involves fiber optics-- lots of fiber optics! I will most likely discuss the new character in more detail when I have the new character's design on paper and copyrighted, but until then I will be keeping this character under wraps.

As if to feed my obsession, as it so happened, the mad scientist equivalent of a candy store, American Science & Surplus, was having a sale on large fiber optic lamps. These lamps have a round base and a fountain-shaped formation of .75mm end-glow optic fibers coming out of the top that glow in different colors, and they usually cost between $20.00 and $50.00 apiece, but American Science & Surplus had them on sale for only $5.95 each! These lamps struck me as the absolute most perfect things to take apart and reverse engineer to figure out how fiber optic cables were illuminated, so I had to get my hands on some!

That afternoon I gathered up my chemist friend and we headed down to the American Science & Surplus store to go and check it out! Not only did I stock up on a couple of the fiber optic lamps while I was there, but I also picked up some other neat oddities including: heat-shrink tape to use with my electronics projects, a bright 4-color LED light stand with fading effects to use as an alternate fiber optic illumination source, a 3.5mm mono mini-jack plug to hook up to a audio pick-up inductor coil that I was building a novelty, and a magnifying visor to help me with soldering!

Also in the past couple weeks I have been looking for an alternative to the overly expensive General Semiconductor AY5-2376 ASCII Keyboard Encoder IC for the ASCII keyboard encoding board that I am building for my Replica I computer. So far the best alternative I have come across is the KR2376 developed by Standard Microsystems, but that too isn't exactly cheap-- just cheaper. The other day I may have found a source that has authentic Apple II keyboards and ASCII keyboard encoder boards that are compatible with my Replica I system, but those have their own pluses and minuses. On the plus side, the Apple II keyboard and encoder are guaranteed to work with each other and my Replica I system, but on the downside the combo is very expensive and I will be out of the fun of building my own keyboard and encoder board. I will have to weigh in the cost of all the parts to build my own encoder board based on the KR2376 IC, but building my own my turn out to be cheaper, and since I don't have a big budget for my projects, anything that I can get for cheaper is a good thing!

Lastly, I have been doing a lot of research on PIC microcontroller programming lately so that I can used custom controlled PIC microcontrollers in my projects, and thanks to a lot of help from Dwayne Forsyth from the company 2D Kits, I now know the model PIC microcontroller programmer that I am going to use as well as which development software. After I purchase and build the PIC programmer board and practice programming the chips, I should be able to start making custom chips that can add to the functionality of my robots!

A New Solo Midwest Furfest Skit Idea for Foxee

Posted by: The Mad Scientist

Last June at the DucKon 14 Science Fiction Convention in Naperville, Illinois, I was lucky enough to run into the director of the Midwest Furfest Variety Show. I told him about my idea of building an animatronic robot of Foxee and having her perform in this year's Midwest Furfest Variety show, and he seemed very interested. However, when I told him that my main idea for a performance involved Foxee teaming up with "Georgia Belle," the animatronic fursuit designed, built, and operated by Kittfoxx, he told me that Kittfox may not be performing in the Variety Show this year because he was planning to be an artwork dealer. That lead me for the first time to start seriously planning a new skit idea for the Variety Show in case I wouldn't have anyone else to perform my singing duet with Foxee, and Foxee had to go on stage by herself. I have since talked with Kittfoxx and he said that he would be willing to work with me and do a skit together with Foxee, but just incase things do not work out, I have continued to develop my solo skit idea anyway. Here's what I have:

The "Mad Scientist" Skit

I have joked around for years with my friends that I am a kind of "mad scientist" since I spend much of my free time building strange electronic gadgets (with more and more of them involving high voltage) and coming up with new characters and comics. Because of that, I figured I could play with the mad scientist theme and do a "Dr. Frankenstein" parody skit where I play as a desperate and single mad scientist that builds a robotic fox companion to go out with on Saturday nights!

The scientist can start the skit by lecturing to the audience as if the skit was an actual university science demonstration. He would explain that he was trying to unravel the greatest mystery plaguing mankind, "women," but when he was unsuccessful at trying to find a female subject to take back to his lab to "study intimately" at the local "alcoholic beverage consumption establishment" (bar), he decided to give up and build his own robot woman instead.

When the mad scientist goes to bring his robotic creation to life, the lights in the banquet room will go dark and there will be a whole bunch of high-voltage electric props on stage that give a frightening display, all while the mad scientist is screaming, "It's alive! It's alive!" Some of the high voltage props could include plasma balls, lumina discs, strobe lights, and possibly a high-voltage "Jacob's Ladder" like what was shown in the original Frankenstein film if I can build one in time. Then, when the Foxee does come to life, she turns out to be cynical and sarcastic to the mad scientist, and a hilarious dialog ensues between her and the scientist as she rebuffs his advances. Some possible dialog between the two could be:

Mad Scientist: Don't get smart with me! Your brain is made from an 8-bit Atari console!
Foxee: Well then I guess I have 7 more bits in my head than you've got!

Foxee: You built me to go out on a date with you? Isn't a guy dating a fox illegal in the state of Illinois?
Mad Scientist: No, no, no! *Those* kinds of experiments will happen later, at the Motel Super 8...."
Foxee: I don't know what disturbs me more, the sound of your experiments, or your cheap choice of hotels!

The dialog between the Mad Scientist will be snappy and light-hearted, and the content will be no worse than anything heard on a Simpsons episode. In fact, the proposed dialog above is as risque as I would ever go. The dialog between Foxee and the scientist will last about 30-seconds, and will end with Foxee rejecting him for his date. After that he marks down on a clipboard about how Foxee acted the same way as every other "test subject" he asked out, and then announces to the crowd that at his next lecture he will be testing how his new giant death ray and how he just found "a brand new lab animal to test it on," motioning to Foxee. The skit then closes with a nervous Foxee calling out to the audience, "Yikes! Is there a member of Greenpeace in the house?"

I am guessing that this skit will be about 5 minutes long and that it could be extremely funny once I work out all of the jokes for the dialog between Foxee and the Mad Scientist. I will post updates to this blog as I go along. I have most of the props required for this skit already, including even a mad scientist's lab coat! I already have a plasma ball and a strobe light, and if I want to spend the extra cash I know where I can buy lumina discs and the parts to build a high voltage Jacob's Ladder. While I don't have any professional acting skills, I have starred in a few of my university theater major friends short films, and they never complained about my acting-- so it can't be too horrible. I originally didn't want to act on stage myself leaving that up to Foxee, but if I have to I am sure that I can pull it off.

My biggest concerns about doing this skit is the cost of the extra props, and the extremely difficult chore of finding a voice actress and recording equipment to record her with to provide the voice of Foxee. (Any people that are female voice actors or have recording equipment please feel free to contact me if you would like to volunteer.) I have a female acquaintance that I used to know back in high school that has some acting experience and I am thinking about asking her to help me, but boy will that be one odd question to ask! In any case, I would love to hear your thoughts, comments, and suggestions for improvement about this skit, and whether or not you think it will go over well at Midwest Furfest Variety Show. Thanks!

Foxee™ Animatronic Character 2005 Midwest Furfest Variety Show Act Proposal

Posted by: The Mad Scientist


I have a very ambitious act that I would like to try and perform for the 2005 Midwest Furfest Variety Show. In a nutshell, the act would involve Foxee™, an animatronic robot female arctic blue fox that I am currently constructing, either moving and singing by herself or talking and singing with a human actor on stage for about three to four minutes. The Foxee™ robot when completed will utilize technology similar to that of Kittfoxx's "Georgia Belle" animatronic fursuit that performed in two skits during the 2004 Midwest Furfest Variety Show with the exception that Foxee will be a stand-alone animatronic robot with no human operator instead of an animatronic fursuit.

Foxee's Design and Projected Capabilities

The Foxee animatronic robot is currently only in the design phase. However, most of the hardware and electronics that are going to be used with the robot has already been determined, and based on that I can give you an overview of what her design and capabilities will be. The design for the Foxee animatronic robot will be based off of my Foxee the arctic blue fox animated cartoon character, who has been the flagship character for my sole-proprietorship animation studio for the last two-and-a-half years. Because the robot will be based off of a cartoon fox instead of a real one, it will have a cartoony appearance and will be larger than a real fox.

The Foxee robot will permanently sit upright and be about 27-inches tall. The robot's primary frame will be constructed out of grade A-A plywood and wood dowels, and this frame will provide the support structure, internal compartments, the basic shape of the robot, and something to anchor the servo motors against. On top of the wood frame will be a sculpted wire frame made of low-gauge aluminum armature wire or steel wire. This wire frame will give Foxee her feminine vixen shape and provide the hinges for her mouth and access panels. On top of the wire frame will be a metal or plastic mesh, which will provide something to hot glue her outer fur to. This is the solution I have found to be best based on my robotics and costuming research, however I have little to no experience with using any of these materials, so if any experienced fursuiters or robot designers have any suggestions for better frame and super-structure construction methods and materials, I am open to input.

Foxee, like Kittfoxx's Georgia Belle, will run pre-recorded programs off of a specially formatted audio compact disc using a Sony portable CD player, a Buffington Effects CD2Serial board, and the Servo Animator 1.2.0 software. For a servo motor controller board I have decided to go with the Lynxmotion SSC-32, which is MiniSSC II compatible, can control up to 32 servos, and has open source firmware. A combination of standard and mini-sized Hitec and Futaba servos will be used for the robot’s movement. I plan to use at least 9 servo motors in Foxee, and more will be included if I have the money and the time to install them. The projected servo layout will be as follows:

  • 2 standard servos to control the vertical and horizontal motion of Foxee's neck via a Lynx B pan and tilt kit
  • 1 or 2 micro servos to control the blinking of Foxee's eyes
  • 2 micro servos to control the horizontal and vertical direction of Foxee’s eyes
  • 1 micro servo to control Foxee's mouth
  • 1 micro servo to control Foxee's eye brows
  • 1 standard servo to allow Foxee to wag the tip of her tail up and down

My current design for Foxee calls for her front legs to be static and permanently positioned in front of her as she sits. However, if I have the time, money, and required skill, I would love to attempt adding 4 mini servos and a pan and tilt kit to each front leg so that she could move and manipulate her front legs and paws to use for arm and hand gestures. That would make her seem much more life like, dynamic, and entertaining.

Proposed Acts

My original act idea was to have my animatronic Foxee character sing a duet with KittFoxx's Georgia Belle animatronic suit. The song I have chosen for the duet is a Lee Ann Womack and Alecia Elliott duet country western song called "One Dream," which would be perfect for Georgia Belle because her character is supposed to be a country western singer! The song deals with two girls singing about their competition over a guy, and that rivalry can be acted out between the two characters while they are singing on stage. The song is only three minutes and twenty-one seconds long, which could hopefully be short enough to eliminate the possibility of the skit becoming repetitive or boring. I have not yet proposed this idea to KittFoxx because the e-mail address I have for him bounces back my messages to me, and because my robot is not far enough along in development for me to start making plans and commitments with other people. I need to see if I can actually build this robot in time for the Variety Show first! And if worse comes to worse, I can always try to do this particular act at the 2006 variety show. I hope to have two robot foxes built by then, which would allow me to supply my own duet without having to draft Kittfoxx and Georgia Belle into my act.

If Foxee has to go out on her own without the support of another animatronic character or puppet, I could either have her sing a short song on her own or I can write a script where she interacts directly with me with some kind of short funny conversation. I have been a professional comic strip cartoonist for the last three years, so I am used to writing sharp and funny dialog. I am currently still working on coming up with ideas for such an interactive skit, however if you have any suggestions feel free to volunteer them.

Foxee's Current Development Status

As of the time of this writing, only design work on Foxee has been done and no actual construction of her frame or electronics has been started. I am still in a phase of researching robot design methods and learning how to use the tools and materials needed for construction. To effectively learn how to use a new tool or material, I complete a small practice project using that tool or material. Currently, I have used how to use electronic tools such as a soldering iron, chip puller, chip inserter, multi-meter, and logic probe by building three 555-timer IC based servo controller boards and a working replica of a 1975 Apple I microcomputer. These projects also taught me the purpose of basic electronic components, bread boarding, and how servo motors work and can be controlled.

My next scheduled project is to build an ASCII keyboard and a custom wood case for the Apple I (just like Apple I owners had to do in the 1970's) to teach me how to use a circular table saw and a jig saw, both tools that I will have to master to be able to construct Foxee's complex wood frame. Yet another project will be to create a small stuffed animal replica of Foxee to teach me how to use an electric sewing machine and to design and cut patterns in fur to cover the exterior of my robot. While these mini-projects are time consuming and somewhat sidetracking, the fact is that I will be spending well over $1000 in parts and tools to build this robot, so I would rather take the time to learn how to use all of the tools and materials correctly than risk making a very costly mistake on the robot itself.

Current Obstacles

  • A am currently having trouble locating a reasonably priced supply of General Instruments AY-5-2376 ASCII Keyboard Controller IC's. The AY-5-2376 is a special DIP IC that was manufactured in the 1980's to control ASCII keyboards. At least 2 of these chips are required for my Apple I case project. While I have found multiple suppliers of this out-of-production chip, they either want a $100 minimum order, which is ludicrous, or they will not return my phone calls or e-mails at all.
  • I am having trouble finding an IBM PC-compatible laptop that is within my tight budget that I can use for controlling my Foxee robot and for giving on-site demonstrations of my Foxee Microsoft Agent character. The laptop needs to fit the following minimum requirements:
    • Intel Pentium III running at 450mHz or faster
    • 128MB of RAM, any speed
    • Functioning color screen
    • Graphics card capable of 16-million colors and at least a 800 x 600 resolution
    • 5GB or greater hard drive
    • A DB9 or DB25 RS-232 serial port
    • An external monitor VGA port
    • A PS-2 port for mouses or keyboards
    • A headphone jack for external speakers
    • A microphone jack for microphone input

    Most laptops that are about 4 to 7 years old will probably fit those specifications. I am currently a recently graduated and unemployed university student who is playing the dangerous game of living without health insurance, so I currently unable to afford the price that laptops of this caliber for what they go for on eBay. I wish that I could utilize a less powerful machine, but the multimedia used by both the Foxee robot and Foxee animated Microsoft Agent character require some serious RAM and processing power behind them. If anyone has an old laptop that fits or comes close to these requirements that they would like to either donate to the cause or sell, feel free to e-mail me privately.

Potential Obstacles

  • The Possibility of Lack of Funds – Since I am currently unemployed, my Foxee robot is currently draining my savings account, which alone isn't nearly enough to complete the project. If I am able to find a well-paying job between now and November this should not be a problem, but the risk is there that I could run out of funds before the project is completed, which may render me unable to provide an act for the Midwest Furfest variety show.
  • The Possibility of Lack of Skill – Before I started this project, I had almost no prior knowledge of electronic soldering or electronic circuit design, and I still have no practical experience with sewing, hot gluing, making stuffed animal fabric patterns, wire sculpting, or woodworking. I am learning these things as I go along, and while I have confidence in my ability to learn new skills, there is always a possibility that I could always fall short of my needed abilities and not be able to learn a skill in a capacity that is high enough to complete my robot. All I can say is that I will try my best!
  • The Possibility of a Poor Robot Design – While I have currently bought several books telling how to build digital and analog circuits, robot chassis, and robot power trains, I am still doing a lot of educated guessing while I am designing Foxee's frame and determining where to place her servo motors, control rods, and moving parts. I am a Computer Science and Biology student by education, not an Electrical or Mechanical Engineer, so there is no guarantee that the design I am working on will even function after it is built. I just have to try my best here too!
  • Meeting the Midwest Furfest Variety Show Deadline (November 18, 2005)– I am steadfast and determined to get the Foxee animatronic robot constructed and programmed to perform an act in time for the Midwest Furfest Variety Show, however not everything concerning the construction time of the robot is within my hands. One primary concern is the shipping time and availability of some of the parts and supplies needed to construct the robot. I do not have the funds to be able to buy all the parts I need to complete the project from start to finish all at once, and because of that I have to buy whatever parts that I can afford as I require them for the building process. Unfortunately, this opens the possibility that if a certain part is unavailable or takes an excessive amount of time to ship that it could halt my progress and throw me behind schedule. I will plan ahead as best as I can and try to reduce this risk to a minimum, but due to Murphy’s Law I cannot eliminate this possibility completely.

Why I am Doing This

During the course of this project many people have asked me why I would take on such a large, difficult, and expensive project with a high risk of failure at a time in my life where I could barely afford to do it. To explain, ever since I was a little kid, one of my attractions at Disneyland was the Enchanted Tiki Room in Adventureland. This Disneyland attraction was the very first audio-animatronic attraction built at the theme park, and it featured talking and singing tropical birds, tiki masks, and plants. When I was a very small child I literally thought that Jose the parrot and all of his other enchanted tiki bird friends truly were alive, and I was completely awed by them. When I returned to Disneyland when I was high school aged I was still awe inspired by the tiki birds, and couldn't believe how well done and lifelike those characters were. I didn't know how at the time, but I swore that I would get my own tiki bird someday!

At Midwest Furfest 2004 I once again was awed by the performance of an animatronic robot. The robot was the animatronic Georgia Belle worn by Kittfoxx, and when I first saw her perform in the 2004 Midwest Furfest variety show my jaw dropped and hit the floor! Georgia Belle was absolutely fantastic, and I once again told myself how I had to one-day build such an animatronic robot myself! The possibility was opened to me when Kittfoxx handed me his typed essay "Electronics for Fursuiters 101." While the paper didn't go into how the frame of Georgia Belle was built or how her servos, push-rods, and other moving parts were positioned, it did go into the circuit boards that she used as well as some of the basic tools and materials needed to construct her. With that paper in hand, I swore that I was going to build an animatronic robot of my own someday!

Visitors have been rocked by Foxee the Animatronic Blue Fox!!!

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