With an instantly recognizable hook and effervescent melody, Vanessa Carlton’s debut single A Thousand Miles hit the 2002 Billboard Charts like a neutron bomb, earning nominations for the Grammy Award for Song of the Year and the Billboard Music Award for Top 40 Track of the Year. Featured prominently in 2004’s White Chicks, Terry Crews credits the undeniable smash with helping launch his acting career.
The accompanying music video saw Carlton and her piano rolling through Newbury Park, California, and portions of downtown Los Angeles. Twenty-one years later, a team of hobbyist roboticists have brought Carlton’s music back to the public ear — this time, to the streets of San Francisco with an animatronic performer and remotely deployable disco ball.
The robot, which currently doesn’t have much of a moniker from the team beyond “The Robot,” is the brainchild of San Francisco-based aerospace engineer Ben Howard, electrical engineer Noah Klugman, lawyer Lane Powell (with additional assistance from local puppeteer, Adam Kreutinger). “This is just a thing that we’ve done together, the three of us, to try to create some joy,” Klugman told Engadget during a recent video call.
The trio first collaborated during the pandemic. “Kids couldn’t really trick or treat properly,” Howard explained. “So we put together a kind of spooky Halloween candy dispensing robot that could drive around the streets and any kids who were brave enough could walk up, have a conversation with it and get some candy.” That project inspired them to look into developing a robot with year-round appeal. A “piano playing Muppet seemed like a good thing to do,” he continued, and from that the Thousand-Mile Machine was born.
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The team started with an outdated food delivery drone model, obtained from “a friend of a friend,” as the mobile platform on which to build out the rest of the construct. “When companies get rid of these things, if they’re cool pieces of hardware, there are plenty of engineers around the city who like to modify them and turn them into fun projects,” Howard explained. “There’s a big community of people who are sharing cool hardware around.”
“I came to acquire [the wheeled base] and we wanted to do this music playing robot.” he added. “Then, when you think about piano player that roams around the city, immediately that [Vanessa Carlton] video comes to mind. It’s so iconic.”
The nearly 400-pound robot measures roughly five feet long on a side and about four feet tall, narrow enough to fit on a sidewalk and into the TEU container workshop in which it was built at San Francisco’s Box Shop. The wheeled base is controlled remotely and manually, while the puppet’s performance — from the hand and head movements to the big disco ball reveal — are all part of a prerecorded act, akin to Chuck E Cheese’s animatronic Pizza Players band. A single button press is all that’s needed to start the performance.
Vanessa Carlton herself reportedly met the robot during a recent event in Petaluma. “It seemed like she enjoyed it,” Klugman noted. “Everyone we’ve met in San Francisco has seemed to really love it. I think the response has been overwhelmingly positive.”
“That was very much [the case with] everyone we encountered when we were out filming,” Lane added. “Just really happy to watch it and excited to talk to us about it and just 100 percent positive from all ages and all walks of life all over the city. It was a really cool experience.”