Nintendo-playing robotic hand could be adapted for biomedical use

Joseph Flaig

The soft robotic hand beat the first level of Super Mario Bros thanks to integrated fluidic transistors and an autonomous program (Credit: University of Maryland)
The soft robotic hand beat the first level of Super Mario Bros thanks to integrated fluidic transistors and an autonomous program (Credit: University of Maryland)

It is the most iconic opening in video-game history. World 1-1 is a perfect demonstration of Super Mario Bros.’ pure and simple ingredients, and its tight yet satisfying gameplay – jump, run, squash, smash.

As the first entry in the astronomically successful Super Mario franchise, the game holds something far bigger than cult status. It was the best-selling video game ever for nearly 30 years, and has been the basis for countless world-record ‘speedrun’ attempts.

Now, 36 years after its release, a new player has joined the fun. A team of researchers from the University of Maryland has 3D printed a soft robotic hand that is agile enough to play World 1-1 – and win. 


The field of soft robotics aims to create new types of flexible, inflatable robots that are powered using water or air rather than electricity. Their inherent safety and adaptability mean they could be perfectly suited for prosthetic or biomedical devices, but controlling the fluids that make them move has traditionally been a challenge.

In the new project, led by mechanical engineer Ryan D Sochol, the team tackled that issue by 3D printing fully assembled soft robots with integrated fluidic circuits in a single step. The technique was made possible by Polyjet 3D printing, which can print layers of different multi-material ‘inks’ on top of each other to create different material properties throughout an object. 

“Previously, each finger of a soft robotic hand would typically need its own control line, which can limit portability and usefulness,” said co-first author Joshua Hubbard. “But by 3D printing the soft robotic hand with our integrated fluidic transistors, it can play Nintendo based on just one pressure input.”

The team designed an integrated fluidic circuit that allowed the hand to operate in response to the strength of a single control pressure. Applying a low pressure makes the first finger press controller to make Mario walk, for example, while high pressure presses the button to make him jump. Guided by a program that autonomously switched between off, low, medium and high pressures, the robotic hand was able to complete the first level in less than 90 seconds.

Next level

The video-game demonstration is fun and attention-grabbing, but far from frivolous. The researchers decided to validate their strategy by beating the first level because of the game’s established timing and level design, and because a single mistake can lead to an immediate ‘game over’. Playing Mario provides a uniquely challenging way of evaluating soft robot performance. 

The researchers are exploring the use of their technique for biomedical applications including rehabilitation devices, surgical tools and customisable prosthetics. They have also made the work open source, with the paper and design files available to anyone online. 

“We are freely sharing all of our design files so that anyone can readily download, modify on demand, and 3D print – whether with their own printer or through a printing service like us – all of the soft robots and fluidic circuit elements from our work,” said Sochol. 

“It is our hope that this open-source 3D-printing strategy will broaden accessibility, dissemination, reproducibility, and adoption of soft robots with integrated fluidic circuits and, in turn, accelerate advancement in the field.”

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Content published by Professional Engineering does not necessarily represent the views of the Institution of Mechanical Engineers.


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