He designs robots that can dance with pop stars

Mr Andy Flessas with his RoboScreens at the Science Centre Singapore. With the help of flexible and fluid robotic arms that can glide, bow and spin, the moving screens put on a show that explains the evolution of engineering. The robot show is part o
Mr Andy Flessas with his RoboScreens at the Science Centre Singapore. With the help of flexible and fluid robotic arms that can glide, bow and spin, the moving screens put on a show that explains the evolution of engineering. The robot show is part of the Science Centre's new permanent exhibition on engineering.ST PHOTO: TIMOTHY DAVID

Robot expert Andy Flessas is an artist at heart.

In 1995, when he joined industrial robot manufacturer ABB Robotics in the United States as a computer animator, he felt it was strange that the company's robot arms moved in a rigid, jerky manner.

Mr Flessas wanted to see the robots move in a fluid and smooth fashion, much like a cartoon character or a ballet dancer.

So a year later, the then 27-year-old enrolled in ABB's robotics training school.

Armed with his animation and robotics knowledge, Mr Flessas designed software in 2004 that can transform stiff industrial robots into graceful dancers and musicians.

His software, called Robot Animator, is a plug-in for computer animation software Maya which allows robots to glide, sway and loop, among other stunts.

Mr Flessas also invented RoboScreen, a TV screen with robotic arms. The screens move as they display video clips, thus becoming actors themselves in the shows.

In 2006, the RoboScreen caught the eye of American rock band Bon Jovi and they roped in Mr Flessas - whom they called andyRobot - to build massive RoboScreens for their 2009 world tour.

The giant moving screens - the band's main stage prop - were programmed to groove along to the band's hits, show high-resolution images of lead singer Jon Bon Jovi, and also act as a floating stage for the rock star to perform on.

The Las Vegas-based roboticist also created a dancing robot piano to accompany Lady Gaga during her performance at the 2016 Grammy Awards show.

"My payout for every single show is when the crowd erupts. I like that I don't have to take videos of my work any more as YouTube is flooded with clips taken by fans," he said.

Closer to home, Science Centre Singapore's new engineering exhibition features four RoboScreens that bow, glide and spin in sync while showing the audience, through animation, storytelling and videos, how engineering has evolved.

The Future Makers Exhibition, opened last month, is the newest permanent exhibition at the Science Centre. Mr Flessas, 50, was in town for the exhibition's launch.

The key to smoothing out a robot's motions is to teach it to move like a human arm and include the element of time, said Mr Flessas.

The brain controls how a person lifts a glass of water.

Mr Flessas' robots were fed with a series of calculations that instruct them to curve over every end point instead of rigidly halting at an end point. The calculations act as a brain for the robot.

Over 50,000 programs, with rows of numbers stacked on top of one another, were used to run the seven-minute show at the Science Centre.

"When you hear the robots go 'ghirr' as it moves, that is the maths happening," said Mr Flessas.

Users do not need programming skills to use Robot Animator.

With the calculations embedded in the software, users just have to connect their robots to their computer and use the cursor to move virtual robots on screen. This gets the real robots to seamlessly mimic the virtual movements.

"It's like puppeteering and not getting lost in the maths. I want people to get lost in their creativity and what the robot is doing," said Mr Flessas.

About 20 companies use Robot Animator and it costs US$6,000 (S$8,150) to program one robot.

His RoboScreens are also headliners on some of cruise operator Royal Caribbean's ships.

And the robots have even ventured into outer space. Nasa's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) used Robot Animator on the 2015 Nasa Asteroid Redirect Mission to enhance the movements of a gravity-defying robot.

The JPL also employed Mr Flessas' robotics expertise for the 2020 Mars Sample Mission.

Mr Flessas is currently preparing for acclaimed Chinese director Zhang Yimou's third concept theatre show, 2047 Apologue, that will premiere in Beijing in September.

The show will feature the RoboScreens and other big robots designed by him.

But the robotics and animation whizz is not invincible. He has had close shaves with naysayers.

During rehearsals for the 2016 Grammy Awards show, the backstage crew handled his robot piano roughly despite his repeatedly telling them to be careful with it.

"The crew were not excited to bring my robot in because they have this misconception that robots will replace them," said Mr Flessas.

The pushback did not end at the rehearsals.

One minute before Lady Gaga went on the stage for her musical tribute to late British singer David Bowie, a crew member bumped the piano on purpose, he claimed, causing one of the robotic arms to bend away from its neutral position.

This would have led the robot to malfunction on stage.

"I was thinking, 'I'm dead.' The curtain is going to open and every pop star in the world is in the audience and billions of people worldwide will watch this. My career is over."

With just 45 seconds left, Mr Flessas dived under the piano and tried to recalibrate the robot.

He lifted the piano and realigned the system. Normally, it would take an hour to fix a robot, he said.

He dashed backstage just as Lady Gaga appeared.

Miraculously, the rose gold robot piano swayed to the music and its microphone bopped along to the pop star's singing, stealing the show for 37 seconds.

"When Gaga returned backstage, she went, 'What did you think, andyRobot?' and smiled. I was so relieved.

"I don't know how I fixed it in 45 seconds, but I knew I had to. This is my career and this is how I feed my family," said Mr Flessas, who is married and has a nine-year-old son nicknamed andyRobot 2.0.

Since then, his robots have been surrounded by security before every show.

But rather than expending energy on the robot haters he encounters, Mr Flessas chooses to draw inspiration from children, whom he believes will advance robotics further.

"I think robots will be used to save the oceans, and it will take the kids to come up with a solution.

"A kid somewhere might be thinking: 'A whale eats algae and swims. So why can't we make a robot whale that eats plastic and digests it?'"

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 13, 2019, with the headline 'He designs robots that can dance with pop stars'. Print Edition | Subscribe