Robots can play Super Mario Bros too

That almost everyone at least once in their life has played or even heard of Super Mario Bros, is out of the question. Published in its first version in 1985, the Nintendo game immediately achieved disproportionate success , managing in a short time to conquer adults and children, and to remain until today the icon of the world of “amarcord” videogame culture.

No wonder, then, that his popularity has made him the co-star of one of the latest scientific research works , published in Science Advances on July 14th . Should we be surprised if, in the era in which robotics is making great strides, even a robotic hand is able to play a video game?

From the creation of a new robotic hand prototype to a curious test

It is an experiment developed by a group of researchers from the University of Maryland, in the United States, with the aim of creating an extremely accurate robot in its movements without any need for electric current to operate. Made using 3D printing technology, the new robotic hand has no internal electronic circuit, and is therefore part of one of the emerging sectors of biorobotics: soft robotics .

The idea, as the university itself explained, is to develop flexible and deformable robots that are powered by air or water, and therefore overcome the rigid structure of traditional robots. The passage of one of the two fluids in fact makes it possible to emulate an electrical signal and to operate the malleable parts of the device by inducing their movement. So why not demonstrate its skills by putting it to the test with one of the greatest classic games?

The team, led by Associate Professor of Mechanical Engineering Ryan Sokol, thus instructed the robot to maneuver the eponymous protagonist of Super Mario Bros by successfully completing the first level of the video game in just ninety seconds. To make the robotic hand perfectly capable of accurately handling the controller, the team designed a fluidic integrated circuit that allows the hand to react differently depending on the type of pressure the fluid exerts. The activation of each finger is therefore subject to the pressure value which is kept constant for a certain time . For example: in the absence of pressure, no finger would be activated; for low values ​​the first would be activated; for average values ​​the second would also be activated; reached the maximum value all three fingers would go into action.

Representation of the fluidic circuit that controls the robotic hand, during the simultaneous pressing of three keys by all three fingers. Source: University of Maryland
Representation of the fluidic circuit that controls the robotic hand, during the simultaneous pressing of three keys by all three fingers. Source: University of Maryland

Joshua Hubbard, Sochol's colleague and co-author of the experiment, said: “Previously each finger of the robotic hand was connected to a specific control line, thus limiting the portability and usefulness of the final product. Now, by printing the whole hand with our integrated fluidic transistors, the device can operate even with only one pressure input ”. If our Mario managed to arrive safe and sound at the end of the game, much of the credit must therefore be given to the 3D printing that made it possible to create a device with hydraulic circuits already integrated and the control of the movement of the fingers through a single stream.

The research team playing Super Mario with the robot. Source: University of Maryland
The research team playing Super Mario with the robotic hand. Source: University of Maryland

Not only details of the results obtained are made available in the publication , but also the design files that define the mechanics of pressure used to control finger movements. Anyone can therefore freely access the open source code , download it and possibly modify it according to their needs.

Not only Super Mario: soft robotics and 3D printing for immediate designs

Of course, the game of Super Mario in which the robotic hand has ventured does not represent the main purpose of the work at all but a nice test of what its potential could be. Since the timing of each level of the game is well defined and even a single mistake can compromise the final victory, the choice of Super Mario as a method of performance evaluation is certainly curious but at the same time valid and outside the classic schemes.

At the moment, the developments that are affecting soft robotics in general and the Sokol team have as their main objective the technological progress through the search for materials that increasingly mimic the functionality and appearance of those found in living organisms. Their use would allow soft robots to be extremely adaptable and safe, thus making them suitable for biomedical applications such as the design of customizable prostheses and modern surgical or rehabilitation instruments. It is clear, therefore, that the ease with which 3D printers allow the creation of such devices in a very short time represents an enormous advantage for the diffusion and accessibility of this new class of robots.

Article by Giovanni Maida

The article Even robots can play Super Mario Bros comes from Tech CuE | Close-up Engineering .