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The White House is bringing the DIY spirit to its Christmas decorations

Get ready for robotic First Dogs.


Elizabeth Robinson


Posted on Dec 3, 2014   Updated on May 30, 2021, 1:56 am CDT

In a season filled with celebrations that have been observed for centuries, it’s easy to fall back into age-old, antiquated traditions that elicit feelings of warmth and simplicity. At 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, though, the First Family is doing things a little bit differently.

This year, the Obama family has embraced digital technology to make the holiday season come to life. Last week, Barack and Michelle Obama released the first-ever interactive holiday greeting in the form of a 50-second YouTube video. On Tuesday, the First Lady previewed the holiday decorations that will adorn the White House, including 3D-printed tree ornaments, interactive light shows, and even robot versions of the family’s dogs, Bo and Sunny.

About 65,000 people are expected to walk through the White House and see the displays, according to the Associated Press.

The DIY-centric theme reflects the president’s Maker movement, which encourages a rebirth in American manufacturing. It is also meant to highlight the administration’s goal of promoting economic innovation and entrepreneurship. The mission is to “reflect culturally what Americans are doing,” William Bushong, chief historian of the White House Historical Association, told the Washington Post.

Earlier this year, the White House launched a contest to design ornaments that would be produced using 3D-printing technology. San Francisco-based company Instructables printed the five winners, which are displayed on the White House’s Christmas trees.

The 56 trees in President’s Park—one for each U.S. state and territory—can be manipulated through code. A Google-sponsored initiative in conjunction with the National Parks Foundation encourages girls to log on to Made With Code and alter the LED displays on the park’s trees in real time.

An interactive wall in the Booksellers Room features a digital snowscape, created using 3D cameras and a projector. The Portland, Oregon-based group Second Story, which produced the snowscape, has also created displays for Time Square, Whole Foods Market, and Coca-Cola.

None of these innovative holiday decorations scream “the future is now” more than the robot versions of the First Dogs. To better simulate Bo and Sunny’s mannerisms, government employees watched footage of the two portuguese water dogs.

Robo-Bo, whose skeleton was made using chicken wire, can swivel his head from side to side. The staff is keeping a close watch on the dog after last year’s robot Bo almost caught fire. Robo-Sunny, meanwhile, involved a collaboration between two Presidential Innovation Fellows and software engineers Bosco So and David Naffis. Infrared sensors built into the dog’s eyes serve as motion detectors that prompt the Sunny to turn her heads toward someone walking by.

The Washington Post reports that staff members want to build robot dogs that can move around in time for next year’s holiday celebration, relying on help from science students. The Bo and Sunny robots were developed using open-source code.

With the White House eyeing the DIY future in its holiday celebrations, it will be interesting to see what decorations they come up with next.

Photo by Diego Cambiaso/Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0)

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*First Published: Dec 3, 2014, 5:24 pm CST