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Ro-Beat It

Robot Automation for Dance Hackathon lets the mechanical men with the moves boogie to Michael Jackson.

Research  |  Oct 17, 2017  |  By Jason Scavone
students gather around a robot


Area high school students prepare for the Robot Automation for Dance Hackathon. (Josh Hawkins / UNLV Creative Services)


International Gaming Institute Hospitality Lab director Robert Rippee posed what, by all measure, was a completely reasonable question: "What do robots have to do with Michael Jackson?" (The unspoke caveat: Other than serving under Captain EO on his spaceship.)

At the Robot Automation for Dance Hackathon Oct. 12 in the Student Union, the answer was "quite a lot, actually." 

The RAD Hackathon, a partnership between UNLV's IGI and the Office of Economic Development, and Core Academy, a Las Vegas program that provides long-term, comprehensive support to youth to break the cycle of poverty. It challenged 25 students from five area high schools to take bots donated by Robotis and program them for maximum get-down, all to the tune of the King of Pop.

Jimmy Martinez of West Prep Academy adjusts his robot while, from left, Emma Hortan of West Prep, LeGusta Hal of Canyon Springs High School, and Gisela Molina of Valley High School look on. The little guy didn't have a single glove, but he got in the groove to classic Jackson fare like "Beat It," "Smooth Criminal," and "Black or White."

The icy glitter-funk of "Don't Stop 'Til You Get Enough" proved to be too much for the mechanical man. After tipping over a couple of times during his routine, IGI Special Project Coordinator Shekinah Hoffman, left, had to reboot the bot. "If you were worried that about robots taking over the world, don't be," she deadpanned.

Students could opt to sequence together pre-programmed dance moves, or they could customize each limb and joint to move through certain ranges of motion. The clicking and whirring of its servomechanism announced each step in the dance for the 18-inch robot. Now if only students had access to a smaller chimp-bot for the full Michael Jackson experience. 

Lindsay Harper, executive director of Core Academy, and Hey Reb! held down judging duties. While some predict a future of automation, where robots are theorized to displace thousands of jobs, Hey Reb! did not seem worried about his future on the sidelines of UNLV games.  

Associate Vice President for Economic Development Zachary Miles wasn't going to let the robots be the only ones having a dance-off. (Though maybe he should have.)