A team of four engineers prototyping a creation — sounds like a group project at MIT, right? The only difference? These engineers are on TV, in a new show “Prototype This” which aired on the Discovery Channel last October. One of the engineers is a former Senior House Graduate Resident Tutor, Andrew Brooks PhD ’07.
Brooks — or Zoz as he was commonly know on campus — left MIT shortly after Spring 2006 to join the “Prototype This” team and spent the last two and a half years working on the show. He completed his thesis later in 2006 to fulfill requirements for his PhD in Electrical Engineering & Computer Science.
As a child, Brooks was more into chemicals than computers. “There’s only two reasons people get into chemistry; it’s either drugs or fire, and for me it was fire,” joked Brooks. But he did have an early exposure to computers as his parents gave him a second-hand Apple II+ to play with. The 1978 Apple II+ was the first computer he programmed.
After learning all he could about pyrotechnics in high school, Brooks went on to double major in chemistry and computer science in college. He found himself spending more and more time in the computer lab instead of the chemistry lab. He built his first robotic system for a class project where he created an active vision system with cameras that could be controlled by the robot. The project sparked his interest in creating controllable hardware and understanding human interactions with robots.
Life at MIT
Wanting to pursue robotics in graduate school, Brooks decided that MIT would be the best place for him. He immediately found himself feeling at home on the east side of campus, leading him to become a GRT at Senior House.
Brooks recalls Steer Roast, an annual alumni event that brings back residents of Senior House for a weekend full of food and music, as his favorite memory of living in the dorm. Steer Roast is “a kind of family reunion, but with a large family,” described Brooks. Asked about his experience as a Senior House GRT, Brooks said that it “is very easy because people are very independent; they take care of their own problems.”
As a student, Brooks worked in the Media Lab with the then Robotic Life group that is now the Personal Robots Group. His research was focused on designing effective communication between humans and robots. His research took him to Japan, where he has been many times, to work with Sony’s QRIO, a humanoid robot. While there, he implemented the first automatically generated body language that incorporated proximics, the management of interpersonal space, such as crossing one’s arms when one doesn’t want to engage in conversation.
Engineers on Television
“Prototype This” was not the first television show Brooks has been on. As a student, he was part of a team of MIT students who took part in “Crop Circles: Mysteries in the Field,” a 2002 special on Discovery Channel about crop circles. The program featured undergraduate and graduate students from MIT creating crop circles in the middle of Ohio. The most memorable part of the show for Brooks was when a viewer came up to him and said that he really wanted to go to MIT because he was inspired by the stuff they did on the show.
The members of “Prototype This” that pitched the show to Discovery Channel created a demo tape which included clips from the crop circles show. Unbeknownst to Brooks, the tape also included demos Brooks had done of his gadgets. Once the show was accepted, they contacted Brooks in early 2006 and offered him a part. About to graduate and unsure about what he was going to do next, Brooks decided to accept. At first, he was skeptical since it was TV, but later decided that if he could use the show as a way to make science and engineering cool, it would be worth it.
“[Prototype This] took over two and a half years to get to what we see on TV,” said Brooks. One of his favorite episodes to film was the firefighter episode, which first aired on Nov. 19, 2008, in which the team created a robotic assistant that helped carry equipment up flights of stairs. He enjoyed this project because there was an evident need for the product and it was tested out by the firefighters. “It was the best endorsement for our design,” said Brooks.
The team of engineers were given 12 days to shoot each episode. Many things went wrong but were edited out of the show. During the water slide simulator episode which first aired on Nov. 12, 2008, there was trouble with the hydraulics. This project was a good example of the time and resource constraints for the team. The size of the simulator was determined by the smallest size tube they could purchase. Of all the episodes taped, Brooks thought this design was the most aesthetically beautiful.
As advice to students wishing to pursue TV, Brooks warns that one should understand why they want to go into the business. “Decide why you want to do it; if you[‘re] looking for stardom, cable TV is not really the place,” said Brooks adding, “have realistic expectations.”
When asked about another season, Brooks responded with “the TV business is very unpredictable.”