IZZY: Intelligent Scenery Simulation Platform

"IZZY," or the Intelligent Scenery Simulation Platform, is an ongoing research project in applied robotics and control systems for moving scenery in live entertainment. Computerized control of scenery is not new; technologies for controlling both simple and complex movement of scenery in multiple axes have been around for decades. Many traditional approaches borrow heavily from industrial automation systems, employing programmable logic controllers (sometimes with more-user-friendly PC-style front-end

interfaces), roller switches, high-powered motors and cable winches. However, because of the very real safety concerns related to hauling scenic units weighing as much as a couple of tons across the stage at relatively high velocities, typical automation systems rely heavily on highly choreographed movements and attentive operators to ensure safety. Additionally, traditional approaches often require the construction of expensive subfloors and decking systems to provide pathways for winched cables and tracks for scenic units to follow.

A promotional video about the early stages of the IZZY project. Featuring appearances by Alex Owens, MFA 2015; Steve Hnath, MFA 2015; Mercer Aplin, MFA 2015; Scott Billik, BA 2014.

IZZY, a 4'x4', 9" tall wagon using two DC motors to provide tank-drive style motion, is a development platform for exploring new technologies in the control and automation of moving scenery. Building on the newly-released RC6 Wireless Automation system from RC4 Wireless, students and faculty will rethink scenery automation: where typical motion control installations consider positioning in terms of individually-controlled axes of motion and set "tracks," IZZY will be able to move freely around her environment. Because of this, typical position-tracking techniques become obsolete, and new methods of locating the wagon in the space must be created, tested, and deployed. Initially, IZZY will be outfitted with an RFID position-tracking system, to determine accuracy and ease of use. In the future, IZZY will help us test other position-tracking systems, including WiFi and ultrasonic position tracking.


In an ideal world, automated scenery will be able to respond to unexpected changes in the physical environment–actors that are behind on their cues, scenic units that have moved into the wrong place or have not moved out of the way, etc. To be able to "respond" to these changes, a scenic unit will need to both recognize that there is an unexpected obstacle and determine an appropriate response (slow down, stop, drive around, etc.). Initially, IZZY will be outfitted with ultrasonic sensors that will be used to determine the presence of and distance to potential obstacles. As the project evolves, algorithms for determining responses to these obstacles will be developed, tested, and deployed.

Automated scenery typically follows set choreography, following pre-determined paths and trajectories across the stage. Traditionally, these "tracks" are literal tracks cut into a stage floor which the scenery follows. These tracks require an often-expensive raised floor for scenic units to ride on. With IZZY, students and faculty will explore alternative, lower-cost solutions to allow accurate tracking across the stage. Initially, IZZY will be outfitted with color/contrast sensors and capacitive sensors, and algorithms for finding and following a colored line or embedded metal strip will be tested and deployed.


As the project develops, new approaches to automated scenery will be explored: as IZZY's abilities to sense and respond to her environment grow, students and faculty will continue to challenge the assumptions about how automated scenery is implemented. Can scenery respond to actors in more instances than the unexpected? Can the movement of actors and scenery be "developed" toegether improvisationally through the rehearsal process? Is it possible for scenery to be responsive to significant changes in staging and choreography without extensive changes to hardware and programming?

Purdue "Boiler Bytes" segment focused on the IZZY project. Featuring appearanced by Amanda Grimm, BA/BS Theatre Engineering 2018; Elena Helvajian, BA/BS Theatre Engineering, 2019; Joshua Wilson, BS, 2016.

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