Robot Games 2001

San Francisco Robotics Society of America (SFRSA)

Exploratorium Museum of Science, Art, and Human Perception

A Robotics Event Featuring Sumo Competitions, Dog Races, Maze, Obstacle Course, Terrain Challenge, 
Animatronics Entertainment 
A Robotic Cambrian Explosion of Evolving Biomorphic Explorers

Story by SFRSA Mediamister Cliff Thompson
Video & Graphics by SFRSA WebBotChick Toni Thompson

September 30, San Francisco, CA   

This year's Robot Games are easily an order of magnitude larger and more robust than anyone can remember, thanks to the heroic efforts of SFRSA President David Calkins and his team, working with Exploratorium Technical Curator Larry Shaw & Multimedia Specialist Ron Hipschman & their Engineering & Webcasting task forces. The Exhibits area is greatly expanded with new guests including, for the first time, several NASA Robotics groups. In addition to the Robot Sumo competition, there are several varieties of new Maze & Obstacle Challenges & many new Demonstrations. Joining the Sumo competition this year is a new competition event, the Robot "Greyhound Dog Races". Beyond the competitions are the Bots themselves - so many rarely, never before and newly seen machines, (with LEGO Mindstorms filling a hefty percentage), that the Games this year resemble a Robotic Cambrian  Explosion. Among the many evolutionary experiments are several new species of robot that would seem to be candidate "Biomorphic  Explorers" of the type that, for example NASA is planning to utilize in the Robotic Exploration of the Solar System. For instance, one Mindstorms machine nicknamed the "Spanner" demonstrates a gap or chasm crossing ability that on a larger scale could offer an effective solution to fording a glacial crevace while searching for life on a ice covered world such as Jupiter's moon  Europa, beneath which ice appearances suggest there may be ocean, geothermally heated & possibly life supporting. 

As visitors enter the Exploratorium, they stroll up to the large classrooms whose entrance  house the Robot Games Exhibits and Competitors Pit areas. In the Pit there are many unusual designs including an AOL CD Line Follower, a Robot Store "Flipbot" and the Mindstorms "Spanner"  Biomorphic Explorer candidate. Upon encountering a chasm, the Spanner Bot swings out a panel to bridge the gap, then further swings out a grappling arm which, upon anchoring at an opposite end, operates a hoist to pull itself across the gap

Moving on to the Exhibits, visitors are greeted by a poster of the "Hitchicker's Guide to the Galaxy" (and digital Prozac candidate) "Marvin the Paranoid Android", followed by a striking Robot Store display of Radio Controlled Battlebots toys and new Mark Tilden "bugs". The bugs are also Biomorphic Explorer candidates and represent a unique evolutionary branch of robots, as they are analog, not digital, capacitor network charge-based, not microprocessor-based, and utilize nervous nets, not neural nets. Their navigation and obstacle-avoidance abilities are not programmed but rather arise dynamically as emergent behavior by a capacitor network charge state seeking to return to resonance from being disturbed by encountering an obstacle - they are in effect Chaos Fractal Strange Attractor-driven machines. (More information on Mark's designs & machines can be found on the Solarbotics and B.I.O. Bugs sites). 

Further along the Display area are Cybie robot dogs, advanced Mindstorms machines, Mark Medonis' "Maxwell" animatronic talking head, and SFRSA member, Positive Logic Engineering President, Joe Miller's ¾ scale working model Mars Pathfinder Sojourner Rover, parked next to a group of Line Following Bots. Also exhibiting are NASA Robotics Research groups from NASA Ames, NASA Robotics Education Project  (REP) and a NASA sponsored USFIRSTcompetition robot  pair.

Moving out into the Competition and Exhibition areas, visitors encounter a Sony Entertainment Robot (ERA) AIBO 210/310 Exhibit and try-out maze and a new event that I created called the Sony AIBO Greyhound Dog Races. The setup utilizes a laptop running AIBO "Navigator" software to send navigation commands to the robot wirelessly, across a 802.11b Wireless LAN network using an Access Point and pair of Wireless LAN PC cards (one each in the laptop and robot), enabling the operator to serve as "virtual jockey". A close-up of the Navigator Control screen, shows live video transmitted from the dog, currently executing behavior routines ("Blow a Kiss", lower right corner), audio clip playback (lower left corner) and other functions such as head-mounted video camera pan/tilt control, leg kick and head moves and general navigation controls. Major pre-event technical help with the Wireless LAN installation was provided by Software and Games Engineer, the Godfather of Lemmings, Mike Farren, along with considerable Graphics production help from SFRSA WebBotChick Toni Thompson, both over several very late night marathon sessions in exchange for mass quantities of caffeinated beverages. Further on-site event setup help and moral support was provided by Space Tourism Promoter and SFRSA Robot Games Über-Volunteer Sam Coniglio and young robotics prodigy Kyle Rader, respectively - Thanks heaps, guys!

Setup to mimic a real racetrack, the track's wall displays mockup signs for robot company and organization sponsors and includes logos for AIBO, ASYST and Zach's Cool Stuff, IRobot, Robot Store and Positive Logic Engineering, Body Synth and Robot, NASA and SFRSA. Founders from a number of these companies actually attended the event. My AIBO K9, looking rested after the shooting of his Science Fiction film AIBO "K-9" vs. Thunder Lizard! and his various public  appearances, is in top form, looking like a lean, mean racing machine in his racing jersey. Between races K9 entertains the crowds, ambling up to on-lookers, performing acrobatic tricks, roaring Japanese monster howls and, like the comedic stylings of "Short Circuit's" robot actor "Johnny 5", performing impersonations, telling jokes and issuing wise-cracks.

As show time approaches, the audience bleachers fill and the Exploratorium's sophisticated mobile webcasting studio goes through final checkout and begins transmitting event audio clips. Robot Games co-hosts, TechTV   "Screen Savers" host Leo Laporte and SFRSA President David Calkins, appear at the stacked Mini-Sumo and Sumo rinks to welcome the crowd. The pair demonstrate Sumo by assuming the positions, then describe a typical Mini-Sumo machine, noting that many of today's entrants built their machine in robot-building classes taught both by David at the Exploratorium and by SFRSA Member Zach Radding at his Cool Stuff  Robot Workshop in the East Bay. Now the hosts officially open the Games. The Sumo competitions begin as each pair of competitors bow to each other and set their machines to start. After scurrying about the rink searching for one another, the autonomous robot warriors try to acquire one another as targets, sometimes invoking various forms of camouflage, subterfuge, or disablement strategies, utilizing boundary detection routines to stay within the rink, and engaging in a fierce battle to push each other out of the rink. While a number of contests end in draws or timeouts, others provide the classic Sumo experience, among the more memorable being the bout between Rebel vs. Thunder , and GV1 vs. Hedgewig, while to stare at Tinkerbell's opponent is to confront the face of Mecha-Terror. Another bout, involving a disablement strategy of blinding the opponent with a flashlight, amazingly, does not succeed . Among bouts that follow, Andrew Miller's Hurricane escorts his opponent to the beyond, while Hedgewig shows Thunder the meaning of defeat.

Behind the scenes, Exploratorium Technical Curator, physicist Larry Shaw, "Godfather" of the SFRSA, is working the controls of the webcasting studio under the watchful eye of a Star Wars Storm Trooper, perhaps evaluating the scene in preparation for ILM's pending relocation to the Presidio across the street from the Exploratorium. During a break between events, Larry steps out to grab a few photos, seemingly quite pleased with how far his mecha-progeny have evolved over the last several years of the SFRSA at the Exploratorium. Thereafter the Storm Trooper joins his friend, famous Star Wars Robot actor, R2D2, for whom the greatest challenge recently has been autographs.

Following the Sumo matches the new AIBO Greyhound Dog Races get underway. After several shakeout trial runs, the main race between the SFRSA SIG AIBO Club's K9 and Sony Entertainment Robot America (ERA)'s entry is about to begin. The Robo-hounds jockey to the starting line, a countdown of 3-2-1 is heard, and they're off! Sony ERA takes an early lead but as the dogs round the first turn, they bump into one another and struggle with entanglement, reminiscent of the chariot race battle in the movie Ben Hur. Rounding the bend and headed into the home stretch, K9 manages to break free and pull ahead. Rounding the final turn back to the starting point, K9 ends up beating Sony ERA by several lengths. The entire race, caught on video, lasts nearly 3 minutes . More races ensue, and amazingly, K9, seemingly "in the zone", wins every race that follows, beating Sony 3 times, until mysteriously, Sony's machine stops working altogether. Despite intense efforts by the ERA team to reboot the system, the condition persists, causing one wag to observe that sometimes this same phenomena occurs in Japanese Robot Sumo, where it is described by a word that in English means the machine has entered a state of "having lost the will to survive". With these latest victories, it is difficult to assess just how much the presence of the Tech TV Digital Cable and Internet Webcast TV cameras, broadcasting live to a potentially global audience, have contributed towards nudging AIBO K9, or at least his notoriety, to the brink of Superstardom. Never one to miss a photo opportunity however, after the final race K9 is wrapped in a victory cloak and taken to the Winners Circle, where he receives his Grand Prize Trophy, a traditional Japanese Samurai Warrior Kabuto Helmet. Perhaps the secret of K9's success is written in Japanese across my racing headband, which translated into English reads, "Sure To Win".

Following the Dog Races, a set of really impressive and even rare Demonstration Events start in the Games main staging area, beginning with a wireless infrared controlled pair of Mindstorms Line Following Bots, followed by a pair of NASA USFIRST Competition Robots. Next comes the march of the Hexapod Walkers, featuring SFRSA member, robot artist/neurologist John Zeissig's Fuzz Knuckles, joined by Psyclops roboticist Nicholas Donaldson's Ziggy and Flik. Proceeding to display their Obstacle Course navigational skills, Fuzz Knuckles starts off by demonstrating a unique Artificial Intelligence solution to the problem - after assessing the difficulty of the situation as bordering on the ridiculous, Fuzz Knuckles, in his own inimical style, effects a "Later, Dude" maneuver by simply turning around and avoiding the obstacle all together . Ziggy, however,  transporting a tiny driver who is the very expression of Alien Intelligence, is unstoppable in his fearless assault on the debris-strewn landscape . Thinking we have just witnessed the highlight of the Games, the audience is not prepared for the surprise finale trick Ziggy has stashed up his end-effector - placed in front of a never-before-seen type of obstacle course, Ziggy has to traverse a series of delicately suspended horizontal beams without knocking any loose from their supporting posts. Once again Ziggy's Obstacle Avoidance routines deftly carry him over the beams with all the precision and finesse of a 6-legged Ballet dancer, eliciting gasps of amazement from everyone, including the announcers. Ziggy's partner Flik, an impressive dual RCX Mindstorms creation, turns in a similar performance. These Biomimetic-inspired insect-like machines, with their ability to climb over obstacle courses strewn with more and varied rubble than is typically seen in the Mars Pathfinder Sojourner Rover photographs suggests such Hexapods as excellent prospects for Biomorphic Explorers.

After the Hexapod show, a final series of Demonstration events begins adjacent the Obstacle Course. A miniature tractor-tread upright Bot, resembling the movie "Short Circuit's" robot actor "Johnny 5", entertains the crowd by performing whirling dervish-like pirouettes. Next a Mindstorms Bot, featuring a dual-axis Cartesian coordinate drive train, demonstrates right-angular direction change without turning, while navigating an impromptu maze. Springy and Bugsy follow with an appearance, delighting the crowd with a series of madcap Marx Brothers-like antics. 

Next, Seattle Robotics Society (SRS ) rolls out "Hors D'oeuvres Bot", who seems to cater to a psychological archetype deep within the psyche of the male roboticist, known as "Robot Engineer Man". In Robot Engineer Man's (REM) never ending attempt to inquire of the Ladies as to the possibility of  "a Date", (and to get a Robot to do it for him), REM's Hors D'oeuvres Bot, an Autonomous Date Seeking Robot, uses sophisticated Sonar and Heat-Seeking technology at cocktail parties to locate and acquire potential Date candidates. Once a target is acquired, Hors D'oeuvres Bot rolls up to the hapless female, and, bearing a plate of Hors D'oeuvres, begins engaging in Sensitive Chit Chat ("Oh those Humans, they're all alike"). It sounds like this is just the Bot for SFRSA President and Robot Games co-host David Calkins, who next encounters Obstacle Avoidance Bot, described as being much like the women in Dave's life - they come up, touch him, turn around and go away.

Following these machines, who give new meaning to the phrase "Human Partner Robots", are some remarkably unique mechanisms. There appears a people seeking, infrared beacon following, dual AOL CD ROM wheeled, self-balancing Bot. Next on the scene is an undulating Snake Bot  . Following the mecha-reptile, an amazing pantograph-based, lateral inch (more like foot) worm Bot expands  and contracts   it's way horizontally across the floor, then, after a few adjustments, further surprises the audience by transforming itself a Rope Climber, and expands and contracts   it's way vertically along a Rope. Next comes a Tank-like Mindstorms Maze Bot, followed by the return of Ziggy, who has re-purposed his Obstacle Course algorithms to present a rocking Dance Number. Ending the Demonstrations is a Star Wars inspired Cleanup Droid. Then Robot Games 2001 itself ends with a Grand Finale Demo Bot Melee

All-in-all, an impressive array of robotic technologies - and a pretty neat way to spend a Sunday afternoon (be sure and check back at the Exploratorium's Robot Games webcast site, where, when resources permit, the Exploratorium may post a "Best of" Robot Games Webcast Archive).  Kudos to the Competitors, Exhibitors and Event Organizers!