Hong's lab has been specializing in robots that move in unusual ways, although he says they're based in nature.
STriDER, for example, was inspired by human walking, even though it has three legs. It flips its body and swings one of its legs between the other two, the same way we swing a leg forward when we walk. This robot can also be propelled or dropped, find its footing when it lands, and stride away.
Hong's careful study of nature has led to humanoid robots that can walk and play soccer. His lab is the only American lab to have made humanoids, according to Popular Science, which argues in a long article this month that U.S. robots lag behind Japanese and Korean robots because Americans aren't willing to experiment enough -- we are too focused on having our robots do specific tasks. .
Not Hong, though. He says he was inspired as a kid by the robots in Star Wars and just kept going. Here (according to the National Science Foundation, which funds some of Hong's work) is where he gets his ideas:
"Yeah, many of these wacky robot concepts originate from my dreams...I go to bed at three or four in the morning and when I close my eyes, I see these weird circles and blocks and lines exploding in my head and some of these assemble and form these weird types of robotic mechanisms."
"Next to my bed, I keep a notepad and a special pen that has an LED light on it because I don't want to wake up my wife by turning on the light. I just jot down and sketch everything and go back to bed. Every morning before my first cup of coffee, before I brush my teeth, I open my journal. Many times, it's empty. Many times, it's all scribbles. But from time to time, I see these really ingenious ideas hidden in my sketches and that's my eureka moment. I type all my ideas into a database on my computer. When we have calls for proposals in robotics, I look at my database of ideas and try to find a match."
Below is a video of Hong at TEDxNASA last year demonstrating some of his robots, including STriDER and DARwin, the soccer playing robot that Hong claims will be able to beat humans at the game 40 years from now.
He tells his students to work smart and hard, have fun and don't criticize each others' ideas -- that way, wild brainstorming sessions will result.