Atlas slugged

I watched a lot of skate videos growing up. At some point, failures became as important a fixture as perfectly executed tricks. The spills and the injuries could be downright gnarly (there’s a reason, after all, that skateboarding culture gave the world “Jackass”), but as an aggressively mediocre skater myself, there was something comforting in seeing the best in the world fall flat on their face and (short of actual injury) dusting themselves off and trying a trick for the fifteenth time.

For the dozens or even hundreds of perfectly choreographed videos we’ve seen from Boston Dynamics, we’ve very rarely gotten a glimpse at the slipped-footed tumbles that happen between takes. Today, the firm is pulling back the curtain a bit on what goes into making its humanoid Atlas robot look good in front of the camera.

There’s a reason, after all, so many of the company’s in-house systems bear scuffs, scratches and discoloration on their middle and lower bodies.

“During filming, Atlas gets the vault right about half of the time,” the company writes in a blog post. “On the other runs, Atlas makes it over the barrier, but loses its balance and falls backward, and the engineers look to the logs to see if they can find opportunities for on-the-fly adjustments.”

The company challenges the robot to run a mini parkour course, noting in an accompanying video, “Parkour is a useful organizing activity for our team, because it highlights several challenges that we believe to be important.” Parkour is a challenge to both short-term and longer-term problem solving for the robot, which must both execute a series of individual moves and, more broadly, determine how to get from point A to point B by stringing them all together.

Boston Dynamics says these sorts of videos can take months to get Atlas to complete in one go. “Although this most recent attempt was nearly perfect, it was not precisely perfect, not quite,” the company writes. “After the robots completed their backflips, one was supposed to pump its arm like a big-league pitcher after a game-ending strikeout — a move that the Atlas team calls the ‘Cha-Ching.’ ”

In addition to the hashtag greatest Atlas fails video compilations that definitely don’t exist on the Boston Dynamics computers, missed footing can result in some pretty nasty injuries for the ‘bots — not unlike their human counterparts. Sometimes it gets back up again, like so many robotic Chumbawumbas. Sometimes not. The video is worth checking out for both of these, as well as some insight into what goes into making one of those videos.

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