The Making of Robot Josh

Robot Josh grew out of my desire to tinker with toy hacking and inspiration from Jeff and Sam. I read recently that the difference between an automaton and a robot is that a robot does work. This robot's job is to busk for change.

I purchased a dancing gorilla at Goodwill. One arm had been torqued but both still moved. It didn't play any music, but that was fine as I wanted to play my own sounds. My co-worker Gina bought one from Amazon: this is what hers looks like (the arms are not torqued). It dances and inexplicably plays "Hard to Handle" while opening the raincoat, flashing the LED in the heart that reads "Bananas for You!," and closes the coat. Strange, to say the least.

Originally, I took the toy to Maker Club at my school to see if any of the students were interested in helping hack it. When they showed no interest I let it sit until inspiration struck.

I removed its head and all the fur except for on the feet (I had to figure out how to remove them gracefully). In this state it was nightmarish. However, it showed the potential of the toy: moving arms and hips, an LED, and a speaker built into the head. You can see how its right arm was bent upwards compared to Gina's copy. 

I decided that I would turn it into a small version of me. I used a 3D scan of my head made with the Structure Sensor scanner and 3D printed it proportionally large with a cavity that slipped right over the "head" on the robot.


My incredulous but patient wife scanned my hands and wrists to slip over the metal arms.

I unscrewed the base and removed the fur feet, too. 

The arm torque damaged the motor mounted "finger" that moved the arms and made contact with the switch used to count and tell the circuit board when to stop the animation. I used Tinkercad to model a replacement "finger" and 3D printed it.

The bracket connected to the metal arms was also damaged, so I modeled a replacement and 3D printed it, too. It is the lower white bracket shown connected to the pink "finger" below.

I cut muslin and sewed it into tubes stuffed with batting to create arms that went around the metal armature.

I removed the circuit board and extended the wires to both motors, the speaker, and the switch. 

At this point I was ready to start experimenting with controlling the motors using an Arduino and a Seeedstudio Motor Shield and programming in the Arduino IDE.

I also 3D printed a pair of glasses for Robot Josh.

Robot Josh needed some pants. I started my drawing a pattern and sewing what turned out to be a passable pair of boxer shorts.

Flush with success, I cut off the bottom of the leg from a pair of my khakis and turned them into pants.

I also turned one of my t-shirts into a small t-shirt using a pattern I found online. The convenient thing about Robot Josh is clothing sized for an 18 inch doll fits him.


I embroidered my Turtlestitch Inspi design. Dylan gave him a Maker button.

I ordered a jean jacket and added LEDs and a LilyTiny, just like my own jacket.

Unfortunately the jacket constrained Robot Josh's arm movements too much, so it was set aside.

I experimented with a "greeting card" type sound module on which you can record short snippets of sound. I extended the switch and connected it to the speaker in the head. It ended up being really unreliable, though, requiring the batteries to be removed between uses. 

I adapted a 3D design that fit on a mason jar to act as a busking jar. When a coin is dropped in the jar it would trigger the movement and a short song.

I added a second Arduino and a Seeedstudio Music Shield. The jar connects to a breadboard, which in turn connects to the reset on both Arduinos and shields.

My friend Kara sent me a baby's hat to match one I purchased for myself. I had to modify it to fit Robot Josh's small head, but it turned out awesome.

After debugging the sketches running on the Arduinos so the motors ran roughly as long as the music snippet, I needed to house the Arduinos. I chose a cigar box upon which Robot Josh can dance that holds the Arduinos and shields, a USB hub into which the Arduinos are plugged for power, and a small breadboard. The speakers, power cords for the hub and motor shield, and busking jar wires are routed through holes in the back of the cigar box.

So, with no further delay, Robot Josh and his Arduino-powered dance!

I really enjoyed this project. I hope to run an elective class with eighth graders on toy hacking next school year so this project gave me the foundational skills to undertake that project.