Vassar Stories

The Pacman Tournament: Five Robotics Teams Vie for the Championship

As the plucky little robot sped toward the exit of a large maze in the center of the Villard Room, Tom Lum ’17 jumped high in the air and screamed with joy. Then he picked up fellow student Angela Assante ’18 and carried her halfway across the room.

Lum, Assante, and a third student, Madeleine Melcher ‘18, were the proud “parents” of the first robot to successfully perform its assigned task at “The Pacman Tournament,” a final exam of sorts for 20 students enrolled in an interdisciplinary robotics course called RoboComp 16. About 60 onlookers, including some children of faculty and staff, witnessed the competition.

Asked how the robot had managed to find its way through the maze, Lum, a cognitive science and computer science double major from Ridgewood, NJ, gave a surprising response. “We dumbed it down – it was thinking too much,” he explains.

When the final round of the two-hour competition ended, students from a team aptly named “Ghostbusters” were wearing the gold medals. Both of the team’s robots – the “Pacman,” which was programmed to find its way out of the maze, and the “Ghost,” designed to hunt down opponents’ Pacmen – amassed the highest point totals in the competition against four other teams. Team members were Juleen Graham ’18, Russel Spiro ’17, Ben Tidswell ’17, and David Wallach ’18.

The 20 students enrolled in RoboComp 16 designed, programmed, and built their robots under the guidance of biology prof. John Long, cognitive science prof. Kenneth Livingston; visiting assistant computer science prof. Eric Aaron, and Nick Livingston, assistant director of the new Interdisciplinary Robotics Research Laboratory.

Ken Livingston says the time the students spent in class was miniscule compared to the time they spent building and testing their robots in the lab. “There were nights when I’d leave my office quite late and I’d stop in at the lab on my way home,” he says. “Most of those nights, I’d see the students in there, working hard. And it was amazing to watch this competition and realize how much they all learned in just one semester.”

Members of the winning Ghostbusters squad estimated they’d logged up to 60 hours in the lab testing their little machines. “We had a good basic design and got the robots running fairly early,” says Spiro, a cognitive science major from Syosset, NY.

Graham, a computer science and Italian double major from Kingston, Jamaica, said the team learned how to work in shifts and fill each other in on their progress. “We found that if we were all in the lab at once testing the robots, we got in each other’s way, so we worked more in pairs,” she says.

The team’s strategy for troubleshooting? “You run the robot over and over and over again, see what it’s doing or not doing, and then you make adjustments,” says Tidswell, a cognitive science major from Northampton, MA. “There are no shortcuts.”

Asked if the team had encountered many roadblocks on their path to victory, Wallach, a computer science major and math minor from Poughkeepsie, NY, replied, “All the time, even during the competition. A bumper kept getting stuck under one of the wheels in the first round, so we had to shorten it.”

Long, who has worked with Ken and Nick Livingston on robotics projects at Vassar for several years, says he was excited to revive the student robotics tournament for the first time in four years. “It's a thrill to have students deeply engaged and committed to the incredible challenge of a long-term design project,” he says. “Because we all work together in the Interdisciplinary Robotics Research Laboratory, I've watched them and worked with them from the start of the semester. The best part is when a team starts working as a team — recognizing and then using their individual skills to achieve a common goal.”

In order to enroll in the course, students must have completed either Cognitive Science 211 – Perception and Action, or Computer Science 101/102. “What we do is then build teams that combine students with these two types of background,” Long explains. “The folks who've taken Cogs 211 know much more about the design of robots — both in terms of morphology and intelligence — than the folks who've taken Comps 101/102.  But the folks who've taken Comps 101/102 know much more about programming and the purposeful design of computer code.  Bring them together and we get the great synergy of skills and ideas we saw in the competition.”

Aaron says he was glad to be a part of the team that helped the students prepare for the tournament. “As they hit the milestones we set up along the way, it was clear that each team would be able to field well-designed, working robots for the competition, and the outcome was even better than I expected,” he says. “I loved being part of this interdisciplinary team. These are super-talented Vassar students.”

--Larry Hertz

Photos by Karl Rabe

Posted Tuesday, May 24, 2016