Innovative Lives

Phantom Fingers and Robot Ants

Phantom Fingers and Robot Ants
On October 27, 1995, robots with emotions and computers with "fingers" mesmerized middle-school students from Patricia Robert Harris Education Center in Washington, DC, and the Ormond Stone Middle School in Centerville, VA. Thomas Massie and James McLurkin, two "twenty-something" MIT graduates, brought their inventions to the National Museum of American History as part of the Lemelson Center's "Innovative Lives" series of lecture-demonstrations by American inventors. Stressing that it is never too early to start exploring the world of invention, Massie and McLurkin talked about their careers to date and then invited the students to join them in some hands-on activities.

James McLurkinJames McLurkin, a graduate research assistant at MIT, kicked off the morning with his microrobot "ants." These tiny machines that fit easily in the palm of a child's hand work together, much like real ants. McLurkin has programmed the "ants" -- which he builds with the help of friends -- to respond to their environment: the microrobots can hunt for food, pass messages to one another, and even play tag. McLurkin explained the robots' potential for performing simple household jobs and assisting with some medical procedures. He then gathered the middle-schoolers around to experiment with the robots themselves. With flashlights aimed at the ants' light sensors, the students learned how to entice the robots around a maze of barriers on an ant "race course."

Thomas Massie, McLurkin's fellow MIT graduate, started off by asking the audience, "How many of you want to be rich and famous? And have fun doing it?" With the audience's unanimous affirmative response to those questions, he explained how he had reached just those goals.

As a young boy, Massie enjoyed dismantling things-like his mother's vacuum cleaner-to figure out how they worked. Eventually, he learned not only how to put them back together again, but also to create new objects with parts from discarded "junk." By the age of 12, Massie had built a robot arm out of "junk," launching his career in invention.

Today, Massie is the president of SensAble Devices in Cambridge, MA, the company he founded in 1993 to market and produce his invention, the "Phantom Haptic Interface." Similar in design to his robot arms, the Phantom gives computer users the ability to "touch" things that they see on the computer screen. A user inserts his or her finger in a kind of sling on the Phantom. Pushing against the sling in response to an image on the screen-for example, a button-sets motors in the Phantom arm into action, offering resistance in the opposite direction. Massie was the first recipient of the annual $30,000 Lemelson-MIT Student Prize (1995) and SensAble Devices is thriving.

Thomas MassieThe students had a chance to try out the Phantom and enter the world of virtual reality, pushing buttons, fingerpainting, and trying their hand at a bit of brain surgery, one of the Phantom's real-world applications. Massie and McLurkin also had the students dismantling radios provided by the Center to identify the parts inside and think about how they could be used to build new things.

Hal Walker, the inaugural "Innovative Lives" role model, stated the goal of the series with clarity and eloquence. He told the students, "Putting your hands to work puts your mind to work." The rapt faces of these young people as they guided microbot ants, took apart radios, and touched things that weren't there made it obvious that the students embraced this philosophy.

Learn more about Thomas Massie and James McLurkin -- read their stories, written by Elizabeth J. Sherman.

All text and images © Smithsonian Institution. Updated 5 February 1999.

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