Gavin Miller Brings Robots to Squiggling, Squirming Life

Gavin Miller could be considered a Renaissance man. He’s fellow and head of Adobe Research, but he’s also an author of fairy tales, short stories and plays; an artist in a variety of media; and a respected robot hobbyist, although that may not be the most accurate term.

The word hobbyist doesn’t really capture the passion Gavin brings to the study of robotics and what he creates. His biologically-inspired snake robots (check them out at www.snakerobots.com) have been exhibited in multiple museums, including the International Spy Museum in Washington, D.C.  They’ve also been featured in academic books, sparked world-wide press coverage and attracted millions of hits on YouTube. One of his snakes even served as the ring bearer at his wedding.

Gavin’s S5 snake robot is now on display at the International Spy Museum in Washington, D.C.

It’s an impressive set of accomplishments for something he does in his spare time, but it’s also an example of what’s possible when personal passions intersect professional interests.

“Creativity comes from having a rich metaphorical landscape. Being able to draw on different stories or ideas for inspiration can often lead you to a technical idea that becomes a practical thing,” Gavin explains.

“Being interested in robotics forces me to track the miniaturization and reduction of compute into mobile platforms — a strategic area for Adobe. It reflects my interest in novel and emerging sensors, such as deep infrared cameras and inertial sensors. It even spills over into drone technology, which is becoming more important in the photography and filmmaking worlds. So my interest in robotics helps keep me ahead of the curve.”

Although there are practical benefits from the relationship between robotics and his professional interests as a researcher, that’s only half the story of Gavin’s passion.

“Early in my career I was very interested in computer graphics and animation,” he says.  “I wrote a paper called The Motion Dynamics of Snakes and Worms which was published in SIGGRAPH in 1988. Back then, there was sort of a running joke that every algorithm needs a hardware implementation. But it got me thinking, ‘What if I could bring these to life in the real world?’”

That question eventually led him to create his first snake robot, and the many generations that followed. “My interest in animal locomotion falls into the same idea, of using mechanical devices in unintended ways, to produce the same magic of the illusion of life,” he notes.

Capturing this magic, and sharing it with others in relatable ways seems to be what truly motivates Gavin.  It’s the bigger idea behind the scenes — a common thread that runs throughout all his work — a maker’s desire to bring things to life, make them real and share them with other people.

Gavin has used his B1 spider robot in Girls Who Code presentations.

That’s why Gavin brings his robots to the Girls Who Code summer program at Adobe.  He finds that his biologically inspired robots stimulate an interest in technology for a broad range of young people.  According to Gavin, “The robots make technology relevant to a different crowd than those who already like computers for their own sake.  They don’t think of them as computers.  They think of them more as creatures.”