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April 4, 2012

Innovation: Stanford student's robotic invention moves toward a business

Engineering student Jeff Kessler learned his robotic chops in Stanford classes, and found financial support for his robotic puppet from strangers online.

By Steve Fyffe

Small electrical motors, known as servomechanisms, make the robot's eyes and mouth move. An open-source Arduino microcontroller functions as the robot's brain. (Photo: Steve Fyffe / Stanford News Service)

Jeff Kessler originally dreamed up his remote control robotic puppet "TJ*" for a role in a short film. A joystick would control the puppet's eyes and make its mouth open and close, turning it into a virtual actor. The film never got made.

But after taking several classes toward his Stanford mechanical engineering graduate degree, he dusted off his old design, refined it and pitched it as a programmable child's toy. "Through my classes at the in learning user-centered design, I've been able to look at TJ* as a product, not just as a toy for myself," Kessler said.

 He then enjoyed unexpected success finding financial backing from strangers through Kickstarter, a crowd-funding website. "I made this for myself and I didn't expect this much response," Kessler said.

He posted a short video on Kickstarter, as part of the final project for his D-School class, and waited for donations to start rolling in. He was sitting in the computer lab above Tresidder Union, when he noticed an unusual spike in activity.

"And I say, 'Wait a minute. Why do I have five new backers in the last 10 minutes?'"

His pledges of financial support have since risen to more than $27,000.

He said he learned all the skills he needed to build and promote TJ* soon after his arrival at Stanford. A mechatronics class gave him the confidence to do the programming himself. A class he audited called "Making and Breaking Things" helped him master the open-source Arduino microcontroller. And the "StoryViz" class at the Hasso Plattner Institute of Design at Stanford (aka inspired him to reframe his passion project as a product and honed the storytelling skills he used to solicit funding.

"That one, two, three punch of hands-on hacking, hard programming and making skills, and then looking at it as a product is the combination that released TJ* into the wild," Kessler said.

Kessler named his creation after a reference in F. Scott Fitzgerald's novel The Great Gatsby to an advertising billboard featuring a pair of large eyes and glasses belonging to the fictional Doctor T. J. Eckleburg.

TJ* bears a resemblance to its designer.

"I stood in front of a mirror and measured the distance between my eyes, the height of my nose, and scaled it all down," Kessler said.

An Arduino microcontoller functions as TJ*'s brain.

"It's all open-source, so you can write new programs, you can automate it yourself, you can have it respond to sensors," Kessler said.

"What I'd like is an online forum where people share programs that they've written just for TJ*."

Kessler said he plans to use LED lights as pupils in TJ*'s eyes and to create a version that can raise its eyebrows, as well as smile and frown. "When you have some fiber board and some electronics covered in paper suddenly expressing human emotions, you can do anything."

He said he hoped the attention his Kickstarter campaign has received will help him launch a career working for a movie studio or a production company.

"Ultimately, I'm interested in using my technical skills to tell stories," Kessler said.

"I'm trying to get a career started in entertainment technology, so that hopefully I can do that on a much bigger scale than just one or two puppets at a time."

Or maybe go into business for himself, as a technology entrepreneur.



Jeff Kessler,

Steve Fyffe, Stanford News Service: (650) 725-1294,

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