Double Dutch 2.0

Could jump roping robots change how we think about architectural drawing?

Amina Blacksher plays Double Dutch with a robotic system she designed as part of the Black Imagination Matters incubator at Princeton University. (Courtesy Atelier Amina/Amina Blacksher)

“Movement was always an underlying instigator to how I look at form,” explains architect Amina Blacksher, who began ballet at age six. Her work crosses boundaries and unifies seemingly disparate practices, as she now, among many other things, uses the tools and methods of an architect to investigate the place of robots in our lives and the relationship between the analog and digital. Most recently, her explorations of movement and robotics have taken the form of two arms that join humans to play jump rope.

Two industrial robotic arms from ABB, jointed similarly to a human’s, swing ropes in partnership with a human while people Double Dutch amid the ropes. Custom 3D-printed grips are attached to the robotic manipulators to hold on to the ropes but also to allow for human error, like stepping on a rope, without toppling over the robots.

The Double Dutch project began at Princeton University during the Black Imagination Matters incubator and Blacksher has continued to develop the project, exploring the cultural history of jumping—from children’s games to the Maasai jumping tradition, trying to evoke that “cleansing moment” when suspended in the air.

A close up of a robotic arm with a plastic grip holding a rope

A 3D-printed grip Amina Blacksher designed to help robots hold ropes—and let go of them, too, in the case of “human error.” (Courtesy Atelier Amina/Amina Blacksher)

The Double Dutch robots reveal the intelligence inherent in our bodies: the fact that children’s games possess so much kinetic knowledge that we often overlook and that there is such a profound complexity to sensing and moving through our world. “Rhythm is something we often take for granted,” said Blacksher, “but even a simple circle with a jump rope is not a continuous velocity. It’s weighted, it has a rhythmic bias.” It requires choreography, something that is seemingly so “simple” for humans, children even, but incredibly difficult for robots. And these ironies and oppositions are revealing.

The Double Dutch project is part of Blacksher’s mission to help us realize new relationships to robots and a more complicated relationship to the typically divided analog and digital. It’s also about normalizing what is likely to become increasingly commonplace human-robot relationships.

As an architectural problem, robots could change how we make and understand space. “No arc is absolutely the same,” Blacksher said of the swings made by the jump rope robot. “I’m compiling these micro-deviations to create a pseudospace that could be 3D printed or spun.” In a way, the arcs these robots make are a form of architectural drawing, but a drawing through physical space in three dimensions. This is leading Blacksher to ask: “How do you make a drawing that has a duration?”

Architecture began with hand drawing and has obviously been radically impacted by 2D CAD software, then powerful 3D software suites, and more recent technologies like virtual reality. Robotics has the power of “redefining what a drawing is,” said Blacksher, moving it into 3D space and “using the body again in the generation of a drawing in a way that makes the design process exponentially more intelligent.” By using digital and physical technology in real space and establishing a unique circuit of the relationships between code, movement, embodiment, image, and space, architects might find new tools and new ways of thinking through design problems. “It’s in the relationship between the analog and digital where I’m interested in finding form.”

Blacksher’s research is ongoing. Some of it will be incorporated into future classes at Columbia’s Graduate School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation, and updated Double Dutch robots will be exhibited in Los Angeles this fall. Blacksher hopes to “raise the stakes of holding robots to accountability in terms of rhythmic precision, and their relationship to  space and time.” She hopes we can see a future where “robots are friends, not just something purely functional.”

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