Robotic Guitar Player Wins College’s Fourth Imagineering Competition

in NEWS, Students

By Mark Dwortzan

Evan Lowell and Mehmet Akbulut (both ME'16) demonstrating their robotic guitar player
Evan Lowell and Mehmet Akbulut (both ME’16) demonstrating their robotic guitar player

Cithara — a robotic device that plays a guitar as well as, or better than, some humans — won the $3,000 first prize at the College of Engineering’s third annual Imagineering Competition.

Held April 17 at Ingalls Engineering Resource Center, the competition drew entries from seven undergraduate engineering students or student teams that applied creativity and entrepreneurial skills to advance technologies aimed at improving quality of life. Developed in the Singh Imagineering Lab and other on-campus facilities, this year’s projects were designed to do everything from untying your shoelaces to delivering timely information to your bathroom mirror.

Competitors presented their work before a panel of five judges—Associate Dean for Administration Richard Lally, Associate Professor Daniel Cole (ME), Assistant Professor Douglas Densmore (ECE, BME, Bioinformatics), Coulter Program Director Greg Martin (BME) and Ali Shajii, president

Close-up of guitar-playing robot system
Close-up of guitar-playing robot system

and CEO of Emphysys, a science and engineering consulting firm. The judges assessed each project for originality, ingenuity and creativity; quality of design and prototype; functionality; and potential to positively impact society.

Striking the Right Chord

To emulate how a human plays guitar, Cithara combines an off-the-shelf guitar (acoustic or electric) with two components powered by Arduino microcontrollers: a slider

Osi Van Dessel (ME'16) with Scanner Probe robot prototype
Osi Van Dessel (ME’17) with Scanner Probe robot prototype

mechanism that presses frets at designated locations and a robotic arm that strums or plucks selected strings. Named for the Latin word for “guitar,” Cithara converts musical notes—input as tablature, which represents the precise fingering of the instrument within a specified timeframe—into machine instructions that encode the exact coordinates where the slider and arm should be positioned.

The two mechanical engineering juniors who designed the system, Mehmet Akbulut and Evan Lowell, obtained about 80 percent of their materials from the

Imagineering Lab (where Akbulut works as a manager), and engineered some parts using a 3-D printer. Though neither plays the guitar, they came up with the idea when Akbulut received a guitar as a gift and sought to make good use of it.

“They’re good engineers, so what do they do?” said Shajii. “They build a robot around the guitar.” But Akbulut and Lowell envision Cithara as more than just a whimsical outlet for their engineering savvy.

“In the future we hope that instead of having to pay for a live artist, you could purchase this instrument and it would provide long-term, low-cost music,” said Lowell. “It’s also a great educational tool; we hope someone could use it to teach themselves guitar.”

The panel was particularly impressed by Akbulut and Lowell’s concept, approach, integrated hardware/software design, demo and PowerPoint presentation.

“This project combined mechanical, electrical, and computer engineering expertise with real-time control and precise timing requirements into one system,” said Densmore. “It was inherently demonstrable and fun, and poses numerous additional research questions.”


Probing, Augmenting and Controlling Our Surroundings

The second prize winner, Osi Van Dessel (ME’17), received $1,500 for his project, “Scanner Probe,” a tele-operated mobile robot that maps its surroundings using LIDAR, a technology that bounces pulsed laser light off of targeted objects to determine how far away they are. The Scanner Probe consists of a robot base, turret and two LIDAR sensor units that swivel back and forth to collect data and wirelessly transmit it to a computer, where a software program converts the data into a map in real time.

LIDAR is typically used in large-scale research and industrial applications from self-driving cars to satellite systems that can cost thousands to millions of dollars, but Van Dessel aims to make the technology cheaper and more accessible for home-based robotic applications.

“To have robots prevalent throughout society would require a big step in reducing the cost but still keeping the fidelity that a laser range-scanning unit can give you,” said Van Dessel. “Typically a laser range-finding unit is $10,000 per unit plus another $10,000 for the robot, or $20,000 for one complete system. Mine costs $350, and that was achievable through a few reductions in the requirements for my LIDAR system.”

Two teams tied for third prize, each receiving $1,000 for their efforts.

Benjamin Rawstron (CE/EE’18) was recognized for his project, a concept for a user-friendly, home automation network that enables users to monitor and control multiple household devices. With an overarching goal of configuring the network’s hardware so it can be updated anytime via the Internet, Rawstron designed a garage monitoring station that checks for safety and security threats such as high carbon monoxide levels and break-ins.

Timothy Geraghty (ME’16), Chris Ingalls (CAS/CS’15), Vani Patel (SMG/Marketing’16), Peter Tranoris (ME’16) and Anthony Tran (ME’16) were recognized for their project, Sensa X, a concept for a highly interactive, smart bathroom mirror that displays the weather, traffic, news, date/time, daily calendar entry and other information that’s useful to know during one’s morning wakeup routine. They plan to enable the info to be accessed by voice command and personalized in the presence of a user’s smartphone.

Other entries included a smartcard that provides secure access to a patient’s medical and health insurance records; an automated system for tying and untying shoelaces; and a crowdsourcing platform to help college students pay for their education.

Sponsored by John Maccarone (ENG’66), the competition was designed to reinforce the ideal of creating the Societal Engineer by spotlighting student efforts to design, build and test new technologies that promise to positively impact society.

Imagineering Lab programming is supported by the Kern Family Foundation and alumni contributions to the ENG Annual Fund.