I've always been fascinated by animatronics and the puppeteering skill required to bring them to life. The Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle movies, for example, used amazing computer-manipulated puppeteering technology for the turtles' heads, which still hold up today (mostly the first movie). This video of the effects system used for the third movie is particularly fascinating--and disturbing. But for kids who want to try robot puppeteering at home, the options are limited. That's why Jeffrey Kessler, an engineer at Stanford University's Product Realization Lab, created TJ*, an affordable robot using open sourced hardware and software. The project was quickly funded through KickStarter, which is where you can pledge between $50 and $200 for a TJ* kit with varying complexity. At its core, the robot is an elegant design: a laser-cut fiberboard head frame holds three servos that eye and mouth movement, all of which is attached to an Arduino controller and controlled with with a simple joystick. Kessler even makes the robots at a Bay Area TechShop.
The robot puppet looks good enough for practice ventriloquism, and you can program pre-recorded animations for later playback. The hope is that people who buy TJ* will customize it with LED lights, "skin", and other mods to give it some personality. My recommendation for the next TJ* upgrade--independently shifting eyebrows.