DJ Sures Is a roboticist living in Calgary, Alberta. He is the designer of the EZ-B Robot Controller, which converts toys into interactive robots. In MAKE Volume 27, DJ wrote an introduction to the EZ-B Robot Controller and explained how to use it to make a Ball Chasing Digger Robot.
Are you a DJ or is that just your first name?
My name is DJ Sures. I was named after my grandparents, which resulted in the initials DJ, which I’ve been called since birth. I’ve always liked having the initials, but you can imagine it causes confusion amongst musical DJs. So, one of my biggest griefs online has been getting confused as a musician rather than a uber geek. Google still has a hard time determining the difference!
What’s your line of work? Does it relate to your interest in robotics?
I’m a software developer who works on contract with tight deadlines or projects that need to be re-railed. I’ve worked in almost every industry and have always found robotics to be the place I find most comfortable. During my work in network security, I did projects in artificial intelligence for a protection strategy called “Live Firewalls.” I eventually found myself doing robot control for the oil and gas industry, as well as custom PLC design. During this time I was building robots as a hobby to exercise techniques I learned through contracts.
What are your other interests?
Outside of being geek, I’m active in many high-adrenaline sports, such as snowboarding, downhill mountain biking, auto racing, and I’m even an ex-bobsleigh brakeman. To stay creative, my mother taught me piano at a young age which resulted in a small electronic home studio that adds to the musical DJ confusion. I’m originally from Thunder Bay, Ontario, where my very supportive and proud family lives. I’ve lived in many cities and found Calgary Alberta to be a place I now call home.
Above: This is the a robot built by DJ Sures using the EZ-B Robot Controller and the EZ-Builder Robot Control Software. Visit www.ez-robot.com for more information on how to build your own Wall-E.
How did you become interested in robotics?
It’s probably best that my mother answers this question, she would tell you some funny stories of her “talented son turning anything into a robot” at a young age. I’ll try my best to replicate what she would say… One of the most famous stories my mother tells is of me turning one of my younger brother’s diaper boxes into a remote control robot out of 2 R/C cars at the age of 10 or 11. I always wanted the high-tech toys (which were the most expensive) and she knew they would be taken apart right away! Like the rest of us makers, I would fall asleep at night dreaming of having my own K.I.T., Johnny 5, or now, Wall-E. My insomnia is fueled by an active imagination that causes me to jump out of bed at awful hours to start coding an idea before I forget it. Eventually, my passion for robotics lead to the my current path, a path that I’m grateful to experience.
You’ve been designing robots for a long time. What is their appeal?
I get very excited when asked about what I love about making robots and helping others do the same. My family was very involved in electronics and computers, which is why I learned to solder before I could read. I was programming in basic on an Apple ][e before first grade. Because of my family's involvement with technology, I was surrounded by the controversial Apple vs. Microsoft vs. IBM vs. Hobbyists. I watched Apple take an idea of desktop computing and approach large companies with their dream. These companies laughed and said "computers belong in basements of large business, not desks for home users!" Well, Apple released the computer to the hobbyist, the makers of that era. These hobbyists were no different than you or I, who spend our days in touch with the troubles of getting things done for their employers. The hobbyist goes home, turns on the computer, and begins writing a program to solve the problems they recognize throughout their day. It was the hobbyist that put the computer on the desk. The hobbyist wrote the software that boosted computers into the dependency role they enjoy today. I see a similarity with robotics now. Building robots was satisfying for my own inner child. Since I created the EZ-Robot project, it has been fueled by a vision of makers building robots in the same fashion that amateur programmers did in the 80s. Every robot I build exercises a new technique and concept that I add to my software and release to the public; knowing it is benefiting others puts a huge smile on my face. My robots are not as mechanically refined as some of the other upcoming projects we will see from the EZ-Robot Community, but they are an influence to kick start a revolution of bringing robots into our homes and daily life. In short, I build robots to inspire others to do the same so we can experience the sci-fi future we've read about in books, watched in movies and dreamt at night.
Tell us about Ball Chasing Digger Robot you created for the current issue of MAKE.
The Ball Chasing Digger Robot that I made for MAKE was, like all of my robots, an interesting surprise; even to me! I never plan what I'm going to make, it just happens. I was having a lengthy brainstorm conversation with [MAKE executive editor] Paul Spinrad one day, and we shot some ideas around about a Thomas The Train Engine. I usually procrastinate until I feel a creative urge! One day too close to the deadline, I woke up and visited a few second hand stores, Toys-R-Us and finally, Walmart. Recycling old toys into new techno-bots has been my passion because I am still a child at heart, and these toys are still new to me. After a small amount of frustration in not finding an inspiring toy, I at last stumbled upon a $10 pull-toy named Digger from Walmart. Like the Hollywood view from a robot’s perspective, my mind overlaid a camera and modified servos onto the robot and I instantly purchased Digger and rushed home.
Once I examined Digger, the Dremel was soon cutting away to make room for its upgrades. It’s funny that his stickered-on eyes look up with a pouty expression that asked “What are you doing to me?” Within a few hours and few tweaks to the EZ-Builder software, he was already chasing the red ball. I grabbed my camera and put together a quick video to proudly send to Paul. That night, we spoke and I excitedly told him about Digger. He watched the video the next day and we were both relieved with the outcome. EZ-Builder’s Color Tracking Control was refined and created with Digger’s influence. To the readers now, you’ll find many new camera tracking methods in the Camera Control, including Facial Tracking and Motion Tracking. For being a small dog, Digger played a large part to the EZ-Robot Community!
What’s your idea of a dream robot?
People ask “Can you build me a robot that washes dishes?,” and I get a big kick out of pointing the dishwasher. We dream of a robot to help us through the simple struggles in life. I leave the home assistance robots to the community to develop. I would personally love to see robots used to help people with disabilities and ill-health. For my passion, I consider my robots a comforting friend or pet for mental health. I do enjoy my friends, but I dream of building a bot that greets me at the door and asks about my day. One that makes me laugh with its odd personality, and most importantly, doesn’t get stuck when I’m not home. Most of my time is spent on environmental mapping and camera tracking for my robots. It’s nerve-racking to leave my house with a robot autonomously navigating alone and wondering what kind of mess he’ll make before I get home. This must be what parents feel like when they leave their child home alone for the first time!
From the Pages of MAKE
MAKE Volume 27, Robots!
The robots have returned! MAKE Volume 27 features a special package with robotics projects for every age and skill level. They play music; they outwit your pets; they learn from their mistakes! In addition, we’ll show you how to build a special aquarium to keep jellyfish, create pre-Edison incandescent lighting, spy via the internet, and make a go-anywhere digital message board! All this and much, much more, in MAKE Volume 27.