Dr. Williams' Blog

What Happens When Humanoid Robots Collide in Football, a.k.a. Soccer

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Sunny and Forrest playing 2 on 2 soccer at RoboCup 2014 Brazil. Photo courtesy Adam Stroud

Now that we are back from our very first experience taking the humanoid robots that we designed, built, and programmed from scratch using a 3D printer to compete head-to-head with the best humanoid robot soccer, or football, teams from around the world, many are curious as to how it went. Fantastic, encouraging, satisfying, grueling, learning, improving, optimistic, and dreaming are some of the words that come to mind.

First, how did we do and what was the experience like? It was fantastic. Our performance can be summed up by one of our competitor’s comments to us (their team was this year’s champions). She said that five years ago when they tried to compete, they couldn’t even get their robot to stand up. She said that we had done so much better than they had when they started. Our robot was not only standing but it was successfully tracking the ball, taking steps, and trying to kick the ball. It even serendipitously blocked some kicks and made a save. But the experience goes way beyond the technical challenge. It opened our students’ eyes to a whole new global community of technology pioneers in the middle of a rich cultural experience in Brazil.

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Team MU-L8 (left to right): Adam Stroud, Elise Russell, Joshua Panka, Kellen Carey, Darryl Ramgoolam, John C. Williams, and Dr. Andrew B. Williams

This RoboCup experience for our Marquette engineering and computer science students came a long way from when I came back to Marquette two years ago as an alum to become a faculty member. I had to communicate the research vision I had with students previously unacquainted with robots in general and socially intelligent humanoid robots in particular. I also shared with them a vision of building our own humanoid robots that could be used to assist children with their health and education…a robot that could be made affordable for every child’s home one day. I shared with them the intermediate goal of competing in RoboCup in the teen-sized humanoid robot soccer league to help us reach our long range vision. But first we had to build our own robot. Adam Stroud took the lead on learning SolidWorks and designing our robot using the NimbRo-OP design as a rough guide. In order to further our social intelligence research we decided to use a smartphone as an emotional and conversational interface, something that would be unique to RoboCup humanoid robots. We were able to get additional funds from the Provost office and Dean’s office to fund six students for research the summer of 2013 including four students from Universities in Puerto Rico. Raymond from University of Turabo was the most helpful in assisting in our design of our electrical system to power our robot with lithium batteries. Cristina helped with developing some of the initial vision for our Robot which Josh and Kellen then took on to make our actual RoboCup vision. Eventually John took on the duties with programming motions with Adam and Raoul while Kellen did the initial work on our embedded systems along with Adam. Adam was the overall team leader and key designer for the MU-L8 platform. As advisor and director of the Humanoid Engineering & Intelligent Robotics (HEIR) Lab at Marquette University it was important for me to encourage the students to learn how to learn, troubleshoot, brainstorm, think out of the box, and give them realistically high expectations and a vision for what we could accomplish. I also was on hand to providing technical suggestions and direction while also giving them the freedom to fail or make decisions that I knew ultimately would not be optimal but knew that this would be the best teaching experience.

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All of the RoboCup 2014 Brazil humanoid robots from the adult-size, teen-size, and kid-size soccer leagues with a few of our students visible

But to finally make it to the RoboCup 2014 Brazil in João Pessoa was both an exhilarating and grueling experience. It was also a dream come true. One of our team members, Elise, said it was like a semester’s worth of learning and three conference’s worth of networking packed into one week. It took its toll on us not only intellectually, but physically and emotionally. However, our students handled it with so much grace under pressure everyone at Marquette would have been extremely proud of how they represented MU. Finally, it was like a dream come true. A year and a half a go it was just a vision and a dream. Even back in March 2014 when we qualified we had no guarantee that we could raise the money to build our second robot and raise the $50K to continue the research to go to Brazil. The new president, Dr. Michael Lovell, sent me an email encouraging our team saying the educational experience the students were receiving was transformational. I truly believe he was correct in saying this because I don’t think these students will ever look at the world and technology the same. Our interim Provost Margaret Callahan also encouraged the students saying that this was a life changing experience and regardless of the outcome they should cherish the time they had there. In my book, because of all these reasons and because of their accomplishments, these students were all winners in my book.

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Just another beautiful sunrise in the tropical city of João Pessoa Brazil, site of RoboCup 2014.

Traveling to Brazil just days after the human World Cup ended was a once in a lifetime experience. Brazil, already exhausted from hosting the world for the world championship of soccer, was about to host the world championships of robotic soccer, RoboCup, on the shores of João Pessoa. João Pessoa itself was a beautiful city situated near the equator and on the Atlanta ocean with a beach that stretched I believe 15 km. Even though it was winter in Brazil we wore shorts and I personally enjoyed watching the sunrises over the Atlantic ocean on the beach. João Pessoa, Brazil, is the eastern most part of North and South America and the closest to Africa. (If we looked out we could see the continent of African if only we had super vision.)

On the field, our team did amazingly well for the first attempt at becoming world champions at RoboCup. Sometimes people use that term, “world champions” to refer to high school robot competitions. But this world championship represented the best universities, and as we discovered, even companies from around the world. This was truly a global championship with some of the smartest and talented roboticists from elite universities. Many if not most of the RoboCup student competitors were PhD and master’s students while our team was primarily undergraduate engineering and computer science students. Our team consisted of biomedical engineering, electrical and computer engineering, mechanical engineering and computer science students. Unfortunately, not all of our students that worked on the project could attend RoboCup for a variety of reasons, including internship commitments, but they all were with us in spirit. Of the eight teams that qualified, only 6 teams actually made it to the competition. We tied our first match against Brazil 0-0. Then we lost from an experienced team 0-4 but our robots actually made some blocks and recorded a saved goal. One of our challenges is we learned how fast the other robots walked and the range of their stability in their walk ranged from unstable to very stable to even getting up by themselves. Even last year’s champion robots from Germany could not get up after falling by themselves which was a big disadvantage to the Iranian teams that could. Then we played last year’s champion team from Germany and lost 0-10. The next day we tied with a joint team from two universities, one from Canada and one from Iran, and tied them 0-0. So heading into our third day we were ranked in 4th place. All that needed to happen was to have the team from Brazil and the joint team from Canada/Iran tie and we lose by less than 4 goals to the other team from Iran, Baset. Baset was a team that was actually part of a power systems company in Iran. They are interested in using humanoid robots to perform maintenance. This was unique to the competition because most of the teams were university teams. On the other hand, Baset was probably the most friendly and helpful team to our team. So on the third day of competition, the Canada/Iran team, AutMan, surrendiptiously scored a goal when their robot fell on the ball and beat Brazil, knocking us out of the semifinals. We ended up losing to this year’s eventual champions, 0-5, but compared to the German team’s 0-10 loss to the same team, Baset, we held our own.

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The students learned a lot on and off the RoboCup field from each other and other teams but the most pleasant and surprising things I learned was about their genuine character. My students probably wouldn’t want me to share this but I will. One of our competitors needed a very important component just to get their robot to work and to be able to compete with us. A selfish team just intent on wanting to win and progress would not have shared the component with them. Our students, however, without hesitation loaned the parts to them for the rest of the competition. Also, another team needed to delay their match because they needed extra time to prepare since their equipment had been delayed at a connecting airport. Our students felt like it wouldn’t be right if we didn’t reschedule our match to wait for them to get ready. I was truly amazed at our students’ unselfish character. At the same time, when we needed a soldering iron, someone loaned one to us. Also, most of the teams freely offered advice on improvements and shared how they accomplished some of their technology improvements on their robots. We got a lot of compliments on the design of our robot ranging from beautiful to amazement that we were able to 3D print our robot. Our robot made history in the RoboCup teen sized humanoid league as being the first (almost) fully 3D printed robot to successful compete. I say almost because our robot’s torso was made out of aluminum for added reinforcement.

There were so many highlights from this RoboCup experience but probably the biggest one was for us to open our matches with a tie with Brazil and to come one goal close to making the semi-finals. It was a highlight to see the students perform so amazingly well under pressure, learn a lot , and to have fun interacting and celebrating with students from Brazil. Another highlight was the friendliness of the Brazilian volunteers (Dimas, Gustavo, Marianna, Lucas, and Julie). We had forgotten supplies and needed a power strip after ours blew up. They took us to a hardware store and translated for us because very few people their spoke English. We also needed a monitor and they took us to an electronic store and helped us negotiate buying a monitor. Another hotel person took some of to the grocery story. The RoboCup volunteers also took us to a McDonald’s and grocery store. And on our final day there the volunteers, engineering students from Brazil, took us shopping and site seeing, none of which we could have done without them in the limited time we had. So our students and the new Brazilian and RoboCup friends from around the world were our highlights.

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Forrest, our goalie and one of our MU-L8 humanoid robots, attempting to track and block a soccer ball. Photo courtesy Kellen Carey

So where do we go from here in the HEIR Lab? There is no place to go but up although in the end we were not in last place in the competition. Again, I’ve said it before, there are very few universities where a group of undergraduate can get together and building and program their own autonomous humanoid soccer robots and we were one of 6 and in the top 5 at that in the world. But all of this robocup experience fits into the HEIR lab’s master plan and vision to build autonomous, assistive humanoid robot that will help children with health and education. We also know our technology can help others including those rehabilitating form injuries or strokes and elderly or persons with disabilities. Sunny and Forrest, our first MU-L8 humanoid robots, are comparable to the the first Apple I computer in our goal to reach everyone’s home with their own personal walking humanoid robot. MU-L8 2.0 is planned for next summer and we hope to be able to start selling that version to other universities and schools. MU-L8 was also unique in the RoboCup this year because it was giving visual social feedback through it’s SMILE app interface. This is part of the plan to make MU-L8 a socially intelligent robot that can help others through dialogue and social interaction. We have some great plans to improve our walk engine and potentially a complete re-design of the humanoid skeleton of our robot.

We would like to thank everyone that supported us from the President, Provost, Dean, Exec. Associate Dean, Department Chair, all of our crowd funding supporters, all of the wonderful MU alumni, including some very generous engineering alum, and the financial support we received from GE Healthcare, Milwaukee Tool, Rockwell Automation and Sterling Engineering. We are also thankful to our family, friends, and MU colleagues and alum for their moral and prayer support. We thank the Lord God for the safety, opportunity, and accomplishments that He has given us and the grace, courage and knowledge to experience all that we have through RoboCup 2014 Brazil and beyond. Ad majored Dei gloria.

Andrew B. Williams, Ph.D., is Professor and the John P. Raynor, S.J., Distinguished Chair, at Marquette University in the department of Electrical and Computer Engineering. He is also the Director of the Humanoid Engineering and Intelligent Robotics (HEIR) and former Senior Engineering Diversity Manager at Apple Inc. You can follow Dr. Williams at @outofthebox1 and the HEIR lab at @heirlab or Facebook.com/heirlab.

Day 5: And the Winner is… #RoboCup 2014 #TeamMUL8 #STEM @heirlab

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Sunrise in Joao Pessoa Brazil. Learning to look beyond the here and now keeps things in perspective

8:00
We are at the venue early today. Our match against Baset is in four hours. During team meeting I was able to share with the students that the Provost said that regardless of the outcome we were winners and that she hopes we enjoy this potentially life changing experience. Professor Michael Johnson sent me a message to tell the students, “You really rock!”. My daughter shared with me yesterday after we lost, “That’s ok, Dad, you’re always a winner in my book!”. I said the same things to these students that they are winners in my book as well.

The students made some key improvements last night. Sunny’s torso bar came lose during the competition yesterday but fortunately Adam brought to some ties to help keep the bar connected and the screw from coming out. One of the key determining matches happens at 10am today when EDROM (Brazil) faces AutMan (Canada/Iran). Our challenge is to get more points than those two teams in order to move on to the semifinals. All the students seem calm and collected.

11:00
Some disappointing news. AutMan scored on EDROM meaning they got 3 points for a total of 4 and we have 2 points. It turns out that Autman’s fortuitous goal was made possible by their robot falling on the ball to edge the ball into the goal. It would take a win against Baset for us to advance to the semi-finals. Our students are still upbeat, especially Adam, and want to keep getting ready for our match in an hour. I admire the fact that they aren’t giving up.

Some encouraging news. One of the students from another teen-sized team wants to study engineering at Marquette in grad school with me. Our team would welcome someone with several years of experience in RoboCup and think his abilities will complement how we are seeking to go beyond just RoboCup to develop theory and applications for humanoid robots to help children with health, nutrition, and learning.

1:00
Our MU-L8 robots did their best against an experienced Baset team but could not muster up a goal. The final score was 0-5. Baset has an exceptional team that is part of a power systems company. They were also very friendly and encouraging to our team members. They definitely look to be the favorites for the tourney. So it’s official, the Autman team, which is a collaboration between a Canadian university and an Iranian university will play in the semifinals. Our students remained optimistic and upbeat about how our robots did and the future of our team. My heart welled up with pride and joy to see the great strides they made in such a short time.

4:00
One of the RoboCup volunteers offered to take us to McDonald’s and the grocery store and we happily obliged. It is so helpful to have someone who knows Portuguese to take us around town. We plan to watch the semifinal matches and then celebrate and rest.

Champions become champions by doing the ordinary things in an extra ordinary way. Here are some ordinary and not so ordinary things we learned about becoming a RoboCup champion.

Lessons Learned
We learned several lessons from this first competition. I’ll share what we did very well and what we can do to improve.

Things we did extremely well:

  • Worked together as a diverse team of engineering and computer science disciplines and people
  • Communicated well
  • Kept cool, calm, and collected
  • Made rapid physical modifications to the robot hardware and software changes
  • Packed needed supplies and equipment
  • Learned to listen and value everyone’s opinion and insight
  • Handle the mental, physical, and emotional stress, and pressure that comes from competition, sleep deprivation, and change in diet
  • Learned how to referee RoboCup matches
  • Followed through on assigned responsibilities and roles

Things we learned and will continue to work to improve:

  • How fast the referee starts the game and how ready our robot needs to be
  • How to connect to the wireless game controller and directly through ethernet
  • How far the robot needs to be able to kick to score goals in a match
  • The padding required to take up a fall
  • How precise the localization should be and that their are valid options to particle filters
  • How to orientate the knee servos to provide more flexibility and support
  • How to use the compass and gyroscope in the robot more effectively
  • How to effectively manage the clock with game pickups, servicing, and timeouts
  • How to create a better walk engine
  • How to get the robot to get up from a fall
  • Building things from scratch has its advantages but also sharing and reusing code helps
  • How we can improve our computer vision strategy and methods

Reflection
This morning I got up in time to see the sunrise off the Atlantic Ocean. All I can say was it was awe inspiring. João Pessoa is sometimes called the city where the sun rises first since it’s the farthest east of any city in north or south America . I could see the sun rise below the clouds with the sun rays bursting through the clouds. In ten minutes it disappeared into the clouds. I began to wonder what the first people here many, many years ago thought when they saw the sun rise. I could imagine wondering how the sun floated or what lied at the end of the water. Now we know how the earth rotates and revolves around the sun. The universe is so much bigger than we could ever dream of traveling across. But when I think of the universes bigness, I think of how big our Creator is. My God, the One true God, is so much bigger than me.

By |July 23rd, 2014|Uncategorized|0 Comments

Day 4 : Courage that Counts #RoboCup2014 #TeamMUL8 #STEM

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With our new friends from Brazil at RoboCup 2014 that drove us to the store…twice

8:00
Made it on to the bus earlier this morning. Instead of heading straight to the beach like I normally do before getting ready to go, I got ready to go and waited for the bus while I read, prayed, and wrote in my journal at around 6:40am (4:40am Milwaukee time). When the team came out I ran inside to grab breakfast. By the time I got back there was a long line of people waiting for the bus and I found out that we weren’t on the list. Thankfully, the other person that saw me when I was first in line, vouched for me and the RoboCup volunteer let us get on the bus.

9:00
We had our team meeting after starting out the day in prayer. I thanked God for the opportunity and asked that He give us wisdom, knowledge, and patience as well as continued teamwork and communication. We surprised Adam and sang happy birthday to him and told him we would celebrate later with his new found favorite Brazilian dessert, acai, a frozen, chocolate pudding or ice dessert with different types of granola, powdered milk(?), and bananas. Yesterday we found it to be a refreshing snack but we might have ordered too much.

The team has some new strategies (I can’t post until after RoboCup :-) but they are testing them out on the field now. The students found out firsthand how our walk compares to the other teams. We have a long way to go but we plan to improvise in the short term and make some major improvements in the long run.

Our next match is against the NimbRo team from University of Bonn, Germany at 1pm. We thought they were favored to win the whole thing especially since they have a long history in RoboCup and in the teen-sized humanoid league. The NimbRo team was upset by the Baset team 10-0 yesterday. Sunny and Forrest are actually cousins of NimbRo. We looked at the basic dimensions and specifications of their carbon fiber NimbRo-OP and Adam used SolidWorks to design MU-L8. Our team wrote and published a research paper about MU-L8 and we presented just this past fall in Atlanta at the International Humanoids conference. It’s amazing that even then, our robot was not walking, we had not qualified for RoboCup, and we had not raised any funds to participate in RoboCup 2014 Brazil. But somehow, God brought our team and robots together, united our funders including friends, family, alumni, and companies and we are here. Yesterday, after our 0-0 match with Brazil, we found out that not only are we here, but we belong here.

2:00pm
Our match with Germany, the favored team of this event, went 0-10 in their favor. It’s tough to see my students have to go through this but failure is essential to the learning process. I’ll repeat in quotes, “Failure is essential to the learning process”. The best teacher is experience. Either we can do our best to learn from other’s experiences or we can learn from being in the fire ourselves. This week, our students were “in the fire” so to speak but it’s a good thing, a rich thing because they saw what the robot needed to do, not just for this year but in the future. I’m reminded again of the encouragement Donya from the Baset team gave us, that they were once in our shoes but look how far they have gotten. I reminded our students of the Winston Churchill quote I shared with them on the bus to Chicago on our way to Brazil, “Success is never final, failure is seldom fatal, but it’s courage that counts!”

Just now one of my RoboCup colleagues from a University in Chile, Javier, came over to our table with his children. He was commenting on how beautiful our robots were and that what our team is experience in matches is normal. He said it takes many years to perfect the robots and even then it is stiff competition. He said tell the students to keep at it and continue to work hard.

5:00pm
We tied in the match against the joint team from Canada and Iran 0-0. It was a very close call. Their player ran circles around the ball…literally…but couldn’t get it into the goal. Sunny will need to do some additional training in the off season but she did the best she could. Our old guy, Forrest, manned the goal and did a great job of tracking the ball. His knees held up as long as they could until they gave out at the end with just seconds on the clock. Look for the students RoboCup documentary this fall to see the highlights on video. We found out that we are actually in fourth place as it stands and if we win tomorrow we control our destiny. If not, then there are some scenarios that would happen for us to make it in. We have 2 point in the team standings and we are currently ranked in 4th place.

7:00pm
John is at the team leaders meeting. Darrell and Josh will go to the referee meeting for the technical challenges. Adam and Kellen are working on our new strategies for the walking, kicking, and vision. Elise and Bridget went to go buy some much needed and desired water and snacks. If we were to walk back to our hotel it would take two and a half hours so we always catch a bus. Just now we met a student from a German university that said that about 100 participants were stranded last night here at the convention center because everyone waited for the last bus but there was not enough room. We will be leaving on the next to the last bus…we hope.

Reflection
As I continue to read in the Psalms in the morning, I read how eager the Psalmist was to walk into the house of the Lord to experience God’s presence and to worship Him. The Psalmist felt obligated and enthusiastic about giving thanks to God. This morning as I watched another magnificent display and arrangement of clouds, sun, waves, sand, and trees on the Atlantic Ocean 5000 miles away from Milwaukee, I paused to give thanks. Yes, I am thankful for how well our students prepared and handled the pressure of this world championship competition in AI and robotics. Yes, I’m thankful that we tied against Brazil. Yes, I am thankful that we were able to compete with the team from Iran. But more than that, I am thankful for the student’s lives and value that goes beyond engineering and computer science. These are sons and daughters, brothers and sisters, cousins, nieces and nephews. Their lives are much bigger than robot soccer and I’m thankful for the small role that this competition is having on their character, their learning, and their lives both now and in the future. Thank you, Lord, for all of these magnificent gifts You have for us and the ones You have in store for us in the future.

Day 3: Run Forrest Run! #RoboCup2014 #TeamMUL8 #STEM

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Sunny and Forrest make a terrific block and save from a great team from Iran

11:00am
Our match was delayed from 11am to 5pm with one of the teams from Iran because their luggage was caught in Sao Paolo. But our match with EDROM, the team from Brazil, is still on at 2pm. EDROM team’s match against was 0-5 against Baset, a team that was formed by a power systems company, who is interested in robotics for maintenance of power system stations.

12:00
The students are starting to realize how grueling that the RoboCup challenge is mentally, physically, and emotionally. I can tell they are needing sleep. They are hanging tough though.

1:00pm
Just one hour before our first match against EDROM, which represents a university here in Brazil. Checking to see if we can manually start the robot. The referee also uses the game controller.

2:00pm
Our match against EDROM pitted two first TeenSize RoboCuppers in an exciting match. Some of the teams here have plenty of RoboCup experience including one team is staffed by and funded by employees of a power systems company. We were able to tie EDROM 0-0 in our first match!

5:00pm
We had a match against Asaz University of Parand of Iran. They used the same robot that the Baset team used. Although Sunny and Forrest got some great blocks and saves, they could not hold off the high powered offense of Parand. We fell behind 0-2 in the first half and the final score was 0-4. But the students were encouraged because we saw some improvements from our changes and thought up new strategy to try tomorrow. We are very thankful for all the supporters including all of our alumni, friends, and family, Milwaukee Tool, GE Healthcare, and Rockwell.

Reflections
We watched some of the more experienced teams play today. The team from Germany was matched against one of the teams from Iran, Baset. Based ended up winning 10-0! One of Baset’s team members, Donya, came over and told us that we did great for our first try. She said when they started 5 years ago they could not even get the robot to stand. The Parand team member said they could not even get there robot to go on the field when they started. I’m proud of our team members and their courage, determination, and indomitable character. We are all looking forward to eating dinner, getting a good night’s sleep and competing in tomorrow’s matches.

This morning I was reflecting on Psalm 121 as I sat on the rock at the beach looking at the glorious sun over the Atlantic Ocean and listening to the waves as the mingled onto the sand. The Psalmist was saying. Who do I look to my help from? And then he probably looked at a similar scenic view of nature and said, my help comes from the Lord, the Maker of heaven and earth. It just struck me that God is a Maker. Something that we are striving to get our students to be able to do. Create, make, build, program humanoid robots that will assist children with health and education. God is a Maker and He has made us to be makers too.

Day 2: Fire and Smoke #RoboCup2014 #TeamMUL8

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Team MU-L8 RoboCup 2014 Brazil teen-sized humanoid robot soccer team with Sunny and Forrest

Today was a mixture of fire and smoke. Nothing for parents to be alarmed, by of course. Just a battery that created a spark and caught a wire on fire on the robot. Also, we had put on some step-up voltage devices to try to provide more power to our onboard system. Somehow we figured out that “pops” and the sight and smell of smoke were good signs that this system modification was not working. In hindsight, our students learned that making changes at the last minute on both robots without thorough testing could create a problem.

Our first robot soccer match is tomorrow at 11am Brazil time. However, our competitor had delays in getting their robots to Joao Pessoa so we will let the tourney organizers provide guidance on whether the match will be played at the scheduled time or not. Tonight, John sat in on the team leader’s meeting to hear details of tomorrow’s events as I was off at the snack stand looking for food to eat. Bridget kindly bought some pizza for the students. Darryl and Elise went to referee training. Josh and Kellen made some improvements to our computer vision. Adam worked on the hardware and worked with the others to test the improvements to vision integrated with the locomotion. John finally got the computer to receive referee game controller packets after setting up the robot and his computer to have static IP addresses (sorry, for the geek talk). It’s been a challenge not having access to the Internet for much of the day and it was warm since there is no air conditioning in the part of the convention center we’re in. But the students have had a great attitude and have kept cool, calm, and collected as we all work towards the goal of competing successfully at RoboCup. At the beginning of the summer, I told our students that RoboCup can be like taking a final exam. Either you can cram all night and be unprepared or you can work hard every day and be ready the night before. I must say, it appears that the students have worked hard every day this summer and are as prepared as we can be. The rest is a learning experience that they can enjoy, have fun in and compete. We place it all in God’s hands.

I was pleasantly surprised to see the SpelBots team from Spelman College as they arrived to compete in the Standard Platform League technical challenges. I am proud of them continuing to be the only all female team in RoboCup. It was 10 years ago that I left University of Iowa after reading the Purpose Driven Life as God led me to work at an HBCU. Eight years later He led me on a new chapter leading a diverse set of engineering and computer science students at my other alma mater (Marquette) to becoming one of the pioneers in 3D printed competition humanoid robots with a social intelligence twist. Lots of great memories and lessons learned from the past but I have continued to receive blessing upon blessing since I’ve been at Marquette these past two years and as I move forward into the future. As I told my students then and as I tell them now, “Success is never final, failure is seldom fatal, but it’s courage that counts!” (W. Churchill).

Day 1: Team MU-L8 at #RoboCup2014

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Marquette HEIR Lab Students Setting Up for RoboCup

Today Team MU-L8 arrived at the João Pessoa convention center ready to take on the world…literally. But we found that the world wanted to work together to focus on a common technology goal and in fact want to help each other. Not only were our fellow competitors friendly but offered to help us as we also offered help to them. One of our teen-sized humanoid soccer competitors from Brazil came asking if we had a very important component that was used to communicate with their servo motors and we gladly gave them one of ours to share. They gave us such a glad and loud cheer from their team when their teammate informed them that we had loaned them the part. And there was an even louder cheer when their robots motors began working again. The team from Brazil reciprocated by loaning a monitor that we didn’t pack (more on this later).

In the same way, when our students had a robot networking issue, the team from Iran and Canada offered some very helpful advice. But probably the most helpful were the RoboCup volunteers. Our power strip blew a fuse and needed to be able to plug in our equipment. So they arranged for us to take a taxi to the Brazilian version of “Home Depot” to get what we needed.

And about that monitor. We needed it to log into our MU-L8 to test and run code. The volunteers, Dimas, Lucas, Marianna, and Gustavo, volunteered to drive us to buy a monitor and help us a negotiate a deal. These Brazilian engineering students went out of their way to help us.

Earlier Dimas said today to me, “Are you the team that has Forrest? I read about Forrest on the RoboCup Facebook page. I love Forrest!” He was not the only one. We had team members from Japan, Iran, and others come to visit Forrest and Sunny to see its SMILE app and 3D printed parts. Our students were so proud of showing their creation.

This morning I woke up early to reflect, write in my journal, read Scripture, pray, and meditate as I watched the light rain on the Atlantic Ocean. I have so many blessings to be thankful for to my Creator, including an opportunity to experience the fellowship of our global friends.

By |July 19th, 2014|Uncategorized|0 Comments

What Portuguese & Soccer teaches us about Barriers to Technology and Computing #STEM

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Our Marquette University HEIR Lab arrival at João Pessoa airport for RoboCup 2014 Brazil

Traveling almost 5000 miles from Milwaukee, WI to João Pessoa, Brazil and trying to order a meal in Portuguese made me think of the challenge of other types of language barriers. We found a Brazilian restaurant close to our hotel, Mangai, and feasted on a buffet style of Brazilian food. But not knowing Portuguese made it difficult to talk to the waiters and determine what the ingredients were. In this northeast Brazil tropical beach area lined with palm trees there doesn’t seem to be many people that speak English. But why should they know English. When I worked at McDonald’s in Kansas I couldn’t speak Portuguese of a customer from Brazil came in. In light of my experience today on my Brazil trip, I declared myself guilty of not learning more than a phrase or two in Portuguese (there is still time for me to study tonight).

There is another type of language that this RoboCup trip makes me think about: the international language of soccer. This is a language that more and more Americans are learning about yet many more do not understand. I am one of those casual soccer fans that only learned some more of the nuances of this language by watching the World Cup. Soccer was chosen for these RoboCup international joint research project among universities around the world because everyone around the world “speaks” it, except Americans for the most part. Not knowing and practicing this language since we were kids may contribute to why the US is not in the elite company of the top four teams in the world. Not knowing and practicing a language can create barriers to entry and advancement in soccer as well as technology.

That brings me to my last thoughts on the challenge of language as it relates to technology. Not knowing the language of sciences and engineering, or mathematics, or the languages of computer science, such as Java or Swift, can be a significant barrier into a person’s entry into the technology or engineering field. No matter how much we want to “order that special dish from the menu” if we don’t know the language we are lost. If we want to create a product or gain employment at a technology company if we don’t take the time, discipline, and practice of studying and learning the language we won’t be able to communicate and create in that language. Kids that don’t grow up learning the language of computing early on, may find it difficult to be allowed to play in the “elite” companies. The challenge now is to help our youth catch the excitement of learning the languages of science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) while they are young so they can compete globally to create and make products that will change the world.

Dr. Andrew B. Williams is the Founder and Director of the Humanoid Engineering and Intelligent Robotics Lab at Marquette University and the former Senior Engineering Diversity Manager at Apple Inc.

By |July 18th, 2014|Uncategorized|0 Comments

RoboCup: Move Over Messi, Here Comes Marquette’s Sunni!

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After watching Messi’s team in the Championship match against Germany, I couldn’t help but wonder how soon humanoid robots will be playing against human athletes. We’re on our way to Brazil for RoboCup the global research competition. Our Marquette team flies out of Chicago O’Hare this afternoon for the long trip there.

I plan on using this blog to post thoughts about our journey. It was just 2 years ago that I came to Marquette from Atlanta and just 6 months later our undergrad engineering and CS students started working on Forest. (By the way, Forest’s name was motivated by cheers to get her to run in the lab).

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Will we win our Teen-Sized Humanoid competition? In my mind, we already have. Why? Because these undergrads didn’t let other people convince them they couldn’t build their own autonomous humanoid from scratch. Today we fly to Brazil to compete, learn, and have fun as we enjoy the reward of their creativity, imagination and teamwork.

Dr. Andrew B. Williams is the founder and director of the HEIR Lab at Marquette University and Professor and John P. Raynor, S.J., Distinguished Chair in Electrical and Computer Engineering.

By |July 17th, 2014|Robots, STEM, Technology|0 Comments

Robot Soccer in Brazil for RoboCup 2014, not the World Cup

chicago visa june 2014


Four of our Team MU-L8 members in Chicago to get visa for RoboCup 2014 Brazil

This summer I’m leading a group of Marquette students to compete in RoboCup 2014 Brazil, the World Cup of Robot Soccer and artificial Intelligence and it’s beginning to sink in that we will be leaving next month. We qualified as Team MU-L8, for the RoboCup 2014 Brazil Teen-Sized Humanoid robot soccer championships in Joao Pessoa, Brazil. Earlier this week we traveled to Chicago to apply for our visas and learned some valuable lessons about traveling to Brazil. We saw some people travel from far away to get their visa expedited only to be turned away because they did not have everything that the consulate required. Before I share my list of helpful tips for getting a visa expedited (which in most cases apply to getting a passport expedited), let me first reflect on what the trip to Brazil for RoboCup 2014 itself means.

A little over a year ago I told one of my students that we should build our own humanoid robot. Why not? Today we have off-the-shelf components such as credit card-sized PCs, 3D printers, web cams, and smartphones that can provide the sensors, computing power, and body for such a robot. We also have the ability to write software algorithms based on mathematics that learn from experience, recognize and track motions, and can simultaneously control electric motors to move robotic joints and limbs. The idea I conceived was based on seeing humanoid robots for RoboCup but also the research I’ve been doing in human-robot interaction. When we go to RoboCup, our robot will be equipped with sensors to see and detect falls in order to release the motors to avoid breaking them but also a smartphone app called, SMILE, or SMartphone Intuitive Likeness and Expression, app. SMILE is our portable emotion and conversation interface which we presented at the Emotional Applications for Robots workshop at the Human-Robot Interaction conference in Bielefeld, Germany back in March 2014. So our humanoid robot, MU-L8, pronounced emulate, will be able to express various emotions of happiness, sadness, or surprise while competing in robot soccer. In the near future, I envision this robot to be able to socially and emotionally interact with kids as a robot soccer coach or a coach for any health related activity for that matter.

After traveling from Milwaukee, Wisconsin to get our visa at the Consulate of Brazil in Chicago, Illinois we were met with a crowded room of people rushing to get visas for the World Cup soccer event. A bespectacled Brazilian lady with curly, long dark hair came and spoke to the entire group of applicants to go over all the requirements. She took the time to mention that there were places close by in case we needed to print something out, get a U.S. postal money order, or a passport picture. She also pointed out that we were not buying a visa, we were requesting a visa. Getting a visa is a privilege, not a right. While waiting for our number to be called, one of the visa attendants started announcing the next numbers to be served but would quickly advance to the next number if no one said anything. Then she explained to everyone that when your number is called you should shout, “I’m here!”, and everyone else should shout, “He’s here!”. We quickly got into the World Cup (and RoboCup) spirit with shouts of “He’s here!”.

RoboCup’s goal incidentally is to have a team of humanoid robots beat the human World Cup soccer champions in soccer by the year 2050. By the way, I think this will happen much sooner than that. If you are planning on going to Brazil soon and you want to get your visa expedited at the Consulate of Brazil, here are some tips before you go to the consulate and also while you are there. (Disclaimer: check the Brazil Consulate and the U.S. Passport office websites for any official instructions or tips.)

Before you go to the visa office:

  • Be sure to check which consulate has jurisdiction over you based on where you are currently living. If you are going to college, make sure you go to the consulate that’s located near where you go to college, not your hometown.
  • Make sure your passport has at least six months left on it from the day you travel before it expires.
  • Depending on what other trips you’ve made or are making, you may need to bring updated immunization records.
  • If you are applying for the tourist visa, it’s good to have the invitation letter state you are not going to be paid for any services while in Brazil.
  • You must have a U.S. Postal money order made out in the exact amount of your fees to the Consulate of Brazil. The visa fees vary based on what type of visa you are applying for.
  • Get a 2 x 2 passport photo from Walgreen’s or similar store. They will not accept one printed on paper from your computer.
  • Fill out the visa application online at the Brazil Consulate web page and make sure you click on the English version of the website.
  • If you are going there for a research conference, on your visa application select the seminar and conference button.
  • Put the information on the hotel or address you will be staying while there on your visa application.
  • When you submit your online application, you must print out the visa application form.
  • Sign the visa application form and but the contact as your own name along with your phone number.

When you arrive at the Consulate of Brazil office:

  • Get a ticket that has the number you will be served as soon as you walk in.
  • Be standing and ready to go to the window with all of your documents in hand.
  • Have your drivers license ready to show.
  • Be prepared to give them your passport with your visa application and travel documentation (e.g. plane ticket)
  • Have proof of travel such as your purchased plane ticket.
  • Have your U.S. Postal money order in the exact amount of your fees.
  • Provide an invitation letter for whoever is inviting you to go. (or if you are going to the World Cup have tickets or proof of tickets with your name on it).
  • Bring an official passport picture that you purchased from Walgreen’s or similar store, not one printed on paper from your computer.

One of the reasons I’m sharing these tips is because we saw many people turned away and having their visa application rejected for not having all of this information and the proper materials. Some had come from far away and other states to get their visa application only to be rejected and told to come back when they had all the up to date materials. I was one of them.

If you’d like to follow our journey for RoboCup, you can follow me on this blog and on Twitter @outofthebox1 or follow my Humanoid Engineering & Intelligent Robotics (HEIR) Lab at Marquette University on Twitter @heirlab .

40 Days to Lose Weight and Get Healthy: My Journey

ME and MU-L8

Me and MU-L8, the humanoid health coach and robot soccer player

40 Days ago I embarked on a personal journey to lose weight and get healthier. But you say, you weren’t obese or overweight. And I say, if you only knew. I could tell I was headed down the wrong path. I knew my cholesterol, blood sugars, vitamin levels were indicators that were warning me like an engine needs service light on a car dashboard. It doesn’t help having lived eight years in the mecca for soul food and restaurants, Atlanta, GA and acquiring a fondness for sweet tea. One of the reasons why I have chosen to focus on childhood obesity in my research with humanoid robots is because the way a bad diet wreaked havoc on my Mom’s health contributing to hypertension and diabetes. Obesity is now a global epidemic and it was time for me to make a local, personal effort to make sure I didn’t head down that path. In other words, it was time for me to practice what I preached. Here’s what I learned and experienced. Be sure to read at the end the results of my journey.

1. Knowledge alone won’t make me healthy. I have known a long time that eating sugary, processed, and fried foods and drinking sugary drinks was not good for me. But it tasted good and I wanted to eat them when I wanted to.

2. Bad eating is a result of bad habits. Just like robots use their sensors to recognize certain cues that trigger certain routines to perform a behavior, all for a reward or to meet an internal goal, my body is wired to be triggered by certain food and drink cues, to execute a eating or drinking routine, to get the momentary reward of a sugar or fried food high. I don’t have to consciously decide to eat poorly, just flash a McDonald’s french fry commercial before my eyes and I’ll crave the hot, salty taste of a french fry and adjust my behavior to get one. By the way, much of the fast food, drink, snack, and candy industry design their unhealthy foods to be delicious, addictive and habit forming with some disregard for our personal health in return for making profits for their companies. If you need references for this email me or use Google, Bing, or Yahoo to search for Food documentaries or books, or the upcoming Fed Up! documentary narrated by Katie Couric. (Disclaimer: I haven’t seen it yet but it looks very pertinent).

3. Nutrition knowledge can help me select healthier foods to eat. When I started my 40 day health journey I read portions of the “Daniel Plan” by Rick Warren, Dr. Oz, and others. I learned about how there are certain foods that are called “super foods” that are rich in vitamins and nutrients, taste good, and give you more energy. This was fascinating to learn about these types of foods.

4. I needed to focus on adding good foods to my diet, not eliminating bad ones. If I focused on eliminating bad foods then I would think I was missing out on something. On the other hand, if I focused on adding good foods, I would seek out what was healthier, tastier, and more nutritious.

5. I didn’t have to count calories if I followed a few simple rules. Fill my diet with healthier foods. In the morning I ate oatmeal with a small amount of agave nectar and egg. If I was still hungry I would eat a banana, apple or orange. For lunch, I tried to eat as many vegetables as possible, like salad while also having a good protein like chicken breast. For dinner, I would try to fill half my plate with vegetables, healthy protein and nutritious whole grain. The key for me was having in between snacks that consisted of salt-free nuts or other trail mix type dried fruit, or a piece of fruit, such as an apple, banana or grapefruit. These were my mini-meals I talk about in #13.

6. Water is the best thing I can drink. I was addicted to Dr. Pepper and sweet tea. In fact, my “drug” of choice was a bottle of Dr. Pepper with four Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups. Yes, I’m ashamed but I reveal this in hopes that others will come out of the closet as junk food junkies and find freedom. Water cleanses, refreshes, hydrates, heals. I remember I was getting faint because I wasn’t drinking enough water.

7. Getting daily feedback on my progress was important. I weighed myself everyday to see my progress and then recorded it in my notes app. I recorded some brief notes on how I was doing and what kinds of food I was eating or how I was feeling. I even tweeted my progress sometimes in hopes of encouraging others and keeping accountable.

8. It’s best if you start and continue your journey with a buddy. I asked someone to go on this journey with me. They were my exercise partner and we shared notes on our progress. It can be done alone but two are better than one.

9. Daily exercise of about 30 minutes was key. I exercised at least 5 times a week while always taking Sunday off. For me the treadmill worked as I started out walking and worked my way up to running a good portion of it. On alternating days I would sometimes lift light weights to build muscle. I know this sounds kind of wimpy for someone that used to play basketball in high school and occasionally dunk it but it’s working for me now.

10. Traveling presents its challenges but you can still be successful. When traveling I would buy unsalted almonds and bring apples or some other fruit. I would try to eat salad and even went to McDonald’s to get oatmeal without the maple and an egg dish. If I was at a banquet meal at a conference, I would ask for fruit if they were serving a cake for dessert. I was pleasantly surprised that after one trip I had actually lost half a pound.

11. Don’t obsess over what you eat or don’t eat. I learned this from my daughter. In fact, those are her words. If I’m adding and eating good foods, I can have an occasional piece of something sweet, like dark chocolate, which is actually good for you in moderation.

12. Learn how to feast wisely and recover from setbacks. This past weekend I celebrated my wedding anniversary out of town and also partook of our Easter “feast” at home. I decided that I would enjoy it and fight thoughts that I was guilty of something bad. I gained a little weight but only temporarily. I learned that I really didn’t have to eat in excess to enjoy these feasts. I found myself not enjoying those processed, sugary, and fried foods as much as I thought I used to.

13. Remember to keep portion sizes down and meal frequency up. Instead of three large meals a day I had about 5 to 6 smaller meals a day. This kicked in my metabolism and I found myself losing weight faster. A fist size of protein, a fist size of a health carbohydrate, and plenty of vegetables or fruit are good rules of thumb.

14. Enjoy eating healthy food and drinking water. I never thought I would learn to enjoy eating apples, oranges, bananas, nuts, asparagus, brussel sprouts, avocado, flax seeds, blueberries, strawberries, raspberries, spinach, lettuce, etc. over a Culver’s bacon cheeseburger, cookies and cream custard, large fry and sweet tea. But I’m amazed at how yummy these foods are tasting to me and how bad fast food and drinks taste. The foods and drinks I used to crave can make me feel literally sick.

15. The focus is not on pounds lost but rather developing a life-long healthy lifestyle. I’m humbled when I think of how I live in a rich country where I am to be able to choose what I eat. I hope we can all transfer some of our riches to help those who don’t have as much food by donating to those in need. I hope that my journey will help others who are struggling with being overweight or obese and give them hope. Also, I am humbled that a person can do everything they think is right and still suffer a disease and sickness. We are all subject to God’s mercy and grace.

16. Radical idea: when I’m sleepy, go to sleep.I’ve learned to go to sleep when my body tells me I’m sleepy instead of falling asleep trying to watch a Netflix movie. That way I can let my body and mind rejuvenate, wake up earlier, be more productive, have energy to exercise, and be fueled by the energy healthy foods and water give me throughout the day.

17. Learn to recognize how stress contributes to bad eating and drinking.When I’m stressed I tend to look for comfort. Instead of seeking it from a spiritual source, I often naturally want to find stress relief by a physical means, namely “comfort” food or “comfort” drink. The problem is, in general, this is how addictions are formed and do their damage. I have a lot of good memories growing up and eating cereal when my Mom was living. Sometimes, when I’m stressed or thirsty, I want to eat some of those same sugary cereals to get my mind of of stressful things. Not good for the waistline. There are much healthier ways to deal with stress.

18. Daily exercise in the morning helps to relieve stress. I’m convinced that I’ve reduced stress in my life and have been relieved of a lot of stress through the natural chemicals released to my brain during and after I’ve exercised. The exercise has to be strenuous enough and last long enough (approximately 30 minutes for me) to get this natural high but believe me it’s better than any drug out there because it’s natural and leaves no harmful side effects or addictions.

19. You don’t have to buy all organic foods or special energy bars, drinks, or powders.To be honest we found almost all of our “healthy” foods at the regular grocery store. There are some healthy foods that bring variety to your diet that may be found at other stores like kimchee, seaweed, or miso soup. I also didn’t have to buy any Myoplex, Soy powder, or a juicer. The old adage of an apple a day keeps the doctor away rang true when finding healthy foods like oatmeal rather than having to go to a place like GNC or even Whole Foods. This past weekend when I was out of town, I saw someone in front of me leave Whole Foods while I was shopping for nuts, with about eight items and their bill was over $100. I can get a “whole lot of foods” fruit and vegetables at Wal-mart or Aldi’s, for that matter, for a hundred bucks. This, of course, is only my personal opinion and observation.

20. In all my pursuits, don’t neglect my spirit.In my pursuit to be healthy, I have to remember never to neglect my spirit’s health. That can be a subject of another blog post. (Sneak preview: prayer, meditating on Scripture, and journaling has made a huge impact on my life for around thirty years now).

THE RESULTS: After 40 days in my personalized version of the Daniel Plan, my weight was reduced approximately 9%. For example, if I weighed 200 lbs, I would have lost 18 lbs. Also, for a Mom that had diabetes, which may give me a predisposition for the disease, I discovered that my sugar levels had been reduced and stabilized. Also, my lab results for my cholesterol had improved dramatically with my HDL “good” cholesterol improving by 6% from my last reading taken about eight months ago. To God be the glory for the strength, wisdom, and grace He has given me in this journey and may He help me to continue to seek to care for the body He has entrusted me with.

In summary I believe: If you change your thinking, you will change your behavior. Change your habits and you will change your life.

Disclaimer: These thoughts are considered my own personal opinion and observations. None of these results should be considered typical and are subject to your own personal plan and body type as advised by your personal physician. Also, I only have a doctorate in electrical engineering and not in medicine.

By |April 21st, 2014|Health, Spirituality|0 Comments