Back in January I got a message from Jen McCabe, a former hackathon colleague, saying that she’d moved to Vegas to work for a small robotic startup. Could I help them out ? Maybe consult a bit ? Show them some of the robots I’ve built ?
This happened right about the time I was getting ready to head out the door for the Wireless Sensor Workshop at ICTP . So I sent her a couple links to my robot projects pages here and YouTube, apologized I couldn’t be more help and headed out.
Fast forward about month or so to early March and I found myself again on a plane, only this time heading to LAS for a weekend hacking invitational at the expansive World Headquarters of Romotive, Inc.
It seems that in the time I was gone, I managed to completely blow them away with the FanBot, enough that they put it on their “How to get hired by us” page.
Clearly this flattery could not stand. I mean, we’re talking about drawing a line in front of The Sands here. So a few more email messages fly back and forth between us and it quickly becomes obvious: I’m going to have to go there. Another quick volley of email to make sure they’re not going to freak out if I show up on their doorstep and it’s all set. Me, Romotive, the FanBot, hacking, Vegas, “What could possibly go wrong!?!?”
Now to get a small, fragile robot with lots of wires and bits hanging about past the TSA and gorilla baggage handlers in one piece(and back!). I Amazon-ed up a Pelican case, Feorlen cut block foam for just the occasion and I headed off to the desert FanBot-in-tow for a weekend of robots and who knows what else.
Vegas is, well, it’s Vegas. It’s one of those patches of unreality that can only be described tautologically. It is its own ur-self, a place where the remaining 6 dimensions of our universe, which are normally too twisted and strange to be anything other that curled up on themselves down at the Planck scale, uncurl into slabs of glowing, glittering unreality bounded by rigidly defined tracts of dark matter. And in the middle of this Heisen-scape of sin and shiny and shimmering heatwaves, there is a robot company.
I got off the plane to find a text message from Bobby telling me to meet him in the passenger pick-up area outside the terminal, on the other side of the taxi/limo/van area. Hundreds of people queue up behind these gates until they’re crowding back into the main terminal between the baggage carousels. Then a traffic director opens the gate at opposite sides of the curb and this wall of people streams across the road to the other side where the gate closes right behind you and it seemed all rather reminiscent of the scene from “Metropolis” with the crowds of workers piling into and out of the factory elevators .
So I get there to the other side and hang out for a few minutes by the curb when a white Jetta pulls up and kind of a woodsman-surfer-looking like dude gets out and holds up a sign with a Picture of Romo on it and a hand-scrawled “@jetdillo” pasted onto it. It’s Bobby. I wave at him, he waves back, pops the trunk and we stuff the ‘bot in the back and me in front. Bobby hands me a cable going into the dash of the car. I know what to do with this and reflexively plug it into my phone. “Teleport Massive” by Bass Nectar begins to boom out of the speakers as we pull away from the curb and out into the Vegas night towards the Ogden where Romotive is currently located.
The FanBot and I find ourselves welcomed and made to feel at home almost right away. I meet Keller, the CEO, Phu, one of the other co-founders and iOS devs, James and Oscar, canine-in-residence.
I had barely put my backpack down, before we started playing with robots. I got the FanBot out and let it run around on the table. The battery was completely topped up and it’s minus the brakes these days, so it got away quite a bit and everybody had fun simultaneously watching it yet ready to catch it if it tried to dive off the edge of the table.
On every other flat surface in the apartment, there are robot parts. Boxes from Pololu and other suppliers litter the floor and there are 4 foot-tall bags of packing peanuts down the hallway. This is what your apartment winds up looking like when your Kickstarter project succeeds beyond your wildest expectations.
Hmmm…what’s that there ? A Sparkfun robot claw ? And a Romo robot ? Clearly we must get these things together. The hardware team was mostly out that weekend so it was up to me and Phu to figure out how to hook this up to the Romo AUX ports. A slight case of blue smoke and a minor fire later, we learned that we weren’t going to be able to pull the elephant-sized servo through the garden hose that was the AUX port’s FET. Oh well, there are still two ports left
I tied them together with a bit of cable hackery and this time was rewarded with:
By the time I got all that working, it was late and everybody pretty much was about ready to pass out. So I basically went to the room they had graciously allotted me and fell over. The next morning, I woke up and it was time for, yes, you guessed it: MOAR ROBOTZZZZ!!!
Like all weekends in Vegas, it’s hard to recall everything that went on. I remember robots, little sleep, lots of coffee & late-night hacking, some late-night debauchery with my hosts and fellow humans and generally the fact that I got to spend a whole weekend with a bunch of nerds who decided that the world doesn’t have enough robots in it and that they should do something about that. They spoiled the crap out of me by giving me my own place while I was there and fed me far better than I was expecting. I mean, I was figuring that I’d roll into a coffee shop I came across down the street and getting whatever the $5.99 special was, but they busted out this gourmet stuff on me.
Part of this can be explained by the (still) over all cheapness of the real estate market, esp. in comparison to what it was back in 2006/2007. Jen, my initial contact into Romotive, explained that another part of the story is the economics of Costco and the fact that she, quantifier that she is, bases their grocery runs on a calorie budget instead of strictly what’s cheapest, so they tend to eat A. cheap, B. good and C. relatively healthy without a lot of crap, even on a startup budget. Very smart!
Most of one day was devoted to hacking and soldering and debugging. Another was a build-and-ship day. I got to build my own Romo that I’d ordered off their site and take him home with me. Then, having a surfeit of robot parts and lots of orders to fill, they let me build a bunch more. So, if you got your Romo sometime in March or April, it’s possible that it might have been built by yours truly.
Too soon, the weekend was over and it was time to head back home. Back in the Pelican went the FanBot, my new Clear plastic Romo went in my backpack and I was on my way back to McCarran courtesy of Bobby’s Airport Shuttle and Robot Building Service.
So, why have I become so taken with such a comparatively simple robot that, honestly, is actually more like a remote-controlled car than what we tend to think of as a robot ?
I think I like Romo for the same way the I originally fell for the iRobot Create. It’s a defined thing that is perfectly good at being what it is and we need that. It takes people other than the hardcore geeks to put shells on things and make them presentable and even desirable to normal humans. I have sometimes grumped, in a moment of superiority, that the entire public, commercial Internet could dry up and blow away and I would still be able to find a job in my field because I had no shortage of work BEFORE the mid-’90s expansion. But the world and indeed, I, would generally be a much poorer place than it is now. There would be far fewer cool things to play with, people to talk to and thing to experience.
Romo the vehicle doesn’t have to have all the brains because the phone you strap onto it already has it. The phone has most/all of the sensors you’d put on a robot anyways and it has network access plus a GHz-speed CPU, memory, GPS, a camera, etc.
Romo has everything he needs, even if there aren’t GPIOs sticking out all over the place. The tagline from “Ghost in the Shell” is ‘It has a voice, now it just needs a body’. Well, Romo IS a body…