UNDERSTANDING, DESIGNING & CONSTRUCTING ROBOTS & ROBOTIC SYSTEMS
■ BY VERN GRANER
"ACHTUNG! ALLES NONTEKNISCHEN LOOKENPEEPERS! DAS KOMPUTEN-DEVICE IST NICHT FÜR GEFINGERPOKEN UND MITTENGRABEN! IST EASY
SCHNAPPEN SPRINGENWERKEN, BLOWENFUSEN UND POPPENCORKEN
MIT SPITZENSPARKSEN! IST NICHT FÜR BETOUCHIN BEI DUMMKOPFEN.
DER RUBBERNECKEN TURISTEN KEEPEN DAS COTTONPICKEN HÄNDEZEN
IN DER POCKETS, RELAXEN UND WATSCHEN DER BLINKENLICHTEN!"
Ah, the inevitable blinking lights.
In the early days of computing, the
control panels of building-sized
computers bristled with literally
hundreds of switches and thousands
of individual light bulbs (Figure 1).
These rows and columns of indicators
not only reflected what was happening inside these giant beasts, but they
also provided data and diagnostic
information to the operators.
From the public's perspective,
"Das BlinkenLights" were synonymous
with high technology. Control panels
with indicator bulbs began to make
appearances in science fiction movies
■ FIGURE 1. IBM System/360 Model
91 at NASA in the late 1960s.
such as "Destination Moon" in 1950
and then migrated to robots in the
1956 classic film "Forbidden Planet"
where the seven foot tall "Robby the
Robot" enthralled audiences worldwide. When computers finally shrank
to a size (and price) that electronic
hobbyists could handle, they brought
their blinking lights with them.
In January of 1975, anyone who
bought a MITS Altair 8800 found it
had rows of indicator LEDs for outputs
and mini toggle switches for input
(Figure 2). The wide-spread adoption
of CRTs coupled with exponential
increases in computer bus speeds led
to a vast reduction in the need for front
panel lights. It wasn't long before many
computers relegated the role of LEDs
to simply showing power state or disk
drive activity. However, the public's
perception that "blinking lights = high
1970s and ‘80s, it
seemed many science fiction shows
just couldn't get enough blinking lights.
The Robot (a.k.a., "B9") of "Lost in
Space" fame had both blinking lights
in his brain-bubble and pulsating
pushbuttons on his chest. The chromeplated Cylons of “Battlestar Galactica”
sported spiffy sequential sweeping
red-lit "eyes." Even R2D2 had multi-colored twinkling dome lights to
accompany his beeps and boops.
Though recent movie robots tend
to look more human, when it comes
time in the plot to declare their
robotic heritage, they usually pry
open a panel and show off a handful
of LEDs as proof of true technological nature. So, if both the public at
large and Hollywood persist in believing that all things high-tech should
blink, then who are we to argue?
YABB (YET ANOTHER
■ FIGURE 2. MITS
The search for a blinking light