November 25, 2013      

Company Name: Bot & Dolly
Founder: Jeff Linell and Randy Stowell
Principals: Jeff Linell, Director; Tobias Kinnebrew, Director of Product Strategy; Julia Gottlieb, Executive Producer
Contact: Julia Gottlieb, [email protected]

Why it was founded: The Autofuss team had a penchant for shooting elements of its advertising and marketing films that might be done elsewhere with digital imaging. When the team fell in love with using a tabletop robotic arm to shoot some of their work, they began to dream bigger?much bigger.

Products: IRIS and Scout (hardware), BDMove (software)
Available: Currently Available
What it is: A robotic movement control system
Market niche: Robotic movement control, currently focused on the film and video industry

Bot & Dolly?s offices, located on the edge of San Francisco?s Potero Hill neighborhood, are nested within a rabbit warren of sister companies, studio space, workshops, and the buzzing open-layout office of creative production company Autofuss. It?s part design firm, part film studio, part tinkerer?s workshop, and part boutique cafe (and, in the near future, part brewery).

When I toured the space in early September with Marcus Colombano, who handles marketing and PR for Bot & Dolly, he told me that the unusual environment is the result of a hands-on approach by Autofuss? founders, Jeff Linell and Randy Stowell, who launched the company in 2007. ?They like to do things for real,? he said.

That?s the philosophy behind Bot & Dolly?s platform for robotic movement control. After Linell started working with a tabletop-size robotic arm for its productions, he began to imagine ways to push the technology even further, with larger equipment and better control. The result was IRIS. On the hardware side, IRIS is a 6-axis robot from KUKA Systems (though the system?traditionally used for auto manufacturing and other heavy industrial applications?has been significantly modified). On the software side, Bot & Dolly?s custom system, BDMove, enables users to control the hardware in real-time with exact, time-based programming.

BDMove has a plugin that interfaces with Maya, a widely used 3D animation software, to control the hardware directly (and the company is working on a plugin for Cinema4D as well). While designers have long used 3D animation software to previsualize a scene that would be later filmed in the real world, real-world filming was a separate endeavor. The digital ?script? was merely a reference point. Where robotics were used for filming, specialized programming skills were required, and real-world changes to the scene weren?t reflected in the previsualization. With BDMove, designers can script an entire scene in Maya, including camera motion, lighting elements, and physical elements (such as set pieces and actors) ? and then run it, in real-time, in the real world.

It?s this intuitive approach to the software that makes Bot & Dolly?s technology so promising; it translates design work into real-world applications without requiring designers to learn an entirely new skill set. ?If we want people to use robots, they need to be able to use the tools they?re familiar with,? Colombano says.

Lead engineer Ian Sherman showed me the BDMove iPad control interface, and it was instantly clear how I might use it to control the massive robots. The company has also designed custom hardware interfaces for BDMove that enable operators to manually alter the speed of the digitally programmed scene, should (for example) human actors perform faster or slower than planned. ?We?re allowing creative people to express themselves through technical means,? he said.

The company?s initial market push has been the film and video industry. The results, so far, have been spectacular. The company?s eye-popping art film, ?Box,? went viral in late September, and feature film Gravity, which used Bot & Dolly?s system to create the film?s zero-gravity look with live action filming, rather than computer graphics, has become one of the most successful sci-fi movies of all time.

Computer graphics software is a $17 billion market, but the potential applications are much broader. Architectural design, lighting and stage automation, and some assembly and fabrication applications are already on the company?s radar. The emerging mechatronics market offers plenty of other opportunities, as well, and demand for intuitive interfaces that enable workers with a single skill set to aply their knowledge and experience to other arenas will continue to grow.

Though Bot & Dolly?s industrial connections are limited to date, BDMove is?at the least?a harbinger of the kinds of motion control and mechatronic systems that will likely emerge over the next decade, blurring the line between digital design and physical production.