Video Sans-Video Game

Maker Faire NY 2013

One of the treats at Maker Faire New York was watching kids playing Michael Newman‘s mechanical Video Sans-Video Game. The play field is a scroll of paper with drawn-on caves and channels through which you must navigate (via joy-stick) your little paper space craft on an X-Y stage. If your craft collides with a wall or an asteroid, an infrared detector sees the darkened part of the paper, and it is game over!

Maker Faire NY 2013

Michael brought two versions— a large arcade style one with a belt driven stage, and a smaller one modeled after the WaterColorBot cord and windlass system.

One interesting thing about the young kids playing the game is that none of them had ever seen a media system that required rewinding to restart. Michael drew a new game Sunday morning to replace the slightly tattered roll after a full day of play at Maker Faire on Saturday.

CalGames 2013

in the pit

This weekend, Oct. 4-5, is CalGames 2013, an off-season FRC competition. It’s being hosted by the team we mentor, Firebird Robotics, at Fremont High School here in Sunnyvale, California. The event is open to the public and free of charge for spectators. Matches are scheduled for 6:15-7:15 Friday night, start again at 8:15 on Saturday morning and everything wraps up with awards at 5:15 on Saturday afternoon.

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If you’re in the area, come watch the robots shoot frisbees and climb the pyramids!

Dr. Nim

Our friend Brian (the designer of the EBB driver board which is used in the Eggbot) recently posted this picture on twitter, with the following caption:

Kids found 1966 ‘computer’ ‘game’ in the closet and LOVE it. Dr. Nim always wins. Our future may be OK.

Dr. NIM was designed by the same engineer, John Godfrey, who designed the Digi-Comp II, and it was manufactured in the mid-1960′s by the same company, E.S.R. Inc. It is even described in the same patent as the Digi-Comp II and works in the same manner, using mechanical flip-flops triggered by marbles. Only, to play the ancient game of Nim instead of doing binary calculations. We were very curious about how Brian came by one, and asked for more information. He wrote what follows:

We were on a week long vacation in Michigan. We rented a large house on the shore of Lake Michigan near Traverse City. The house looked like an extreme example of 1960′s decorating—nothing has been updated since. (Large tables with built-in ash trays, shag carpet, an old radio that had a “magic eye” that lit up when your FM radio station was ‘in hi-fi stereo’, etc.) And, in the closet with the games, was one called Dr. Nim. Us adults never gave it a second glance until one of the older kids noticed that it said “computer” on it, and pulled it out to see if she could get on Facebook with it. My ears perked up, and when I saw the front cover, I couldn’t stop playing with it. Which is not surprising considering my background as an embedded systems engineer. But what I couldn’t believe is that the kids loved it too! We were on vacation with 2 other families, each of which had 3 kids (like ours) of various ages. Very quickly, the 10 year old figured out how to beat Dr. Nim. Of course that made all the other kids want to try. Even the 4 year old learned to play. And then some of the other adults (even non-engineers) tried it for themselves, asking how it could possibly know how many marbles to take each turn so that it would (almost) always win. “How can pieces of plastic be a computer?” they asked. So we had a nice chat about where the term ‘computer’ comes from.

The thing that got me most excited was not that (modern) kids picked it up and were fascinated by it, nor that other adults were intrigued, but the thought that, in 1968 when it was available for sale to the general public, enough normal Americans bought it that it ended up in people’s game closets along with decks of cards and Monopoly. I suppose the thought of owning a ‘computer’ when such things were all the rage, was so new that spending a few dollars on a plastic mechanical game computer was something a lot of people did just out of curiosity.

And the instruction manual! I should have scanned it in. It has a mini-course in binary logic and boolean equations, ending with a discussion on how the game works, and how you can set it up in several different ways to play different games. And then it went on with “does this mean Dr. Nim can think?” and the open ended questions of machine thinking.

Too bad somebody doesn’t make something like that today . . . .  <grin>

After Brian wrote back to us, we found the manual for Dr. Nim through the Friends of Digi-Comp group. (Dr. Nim games frequently come up on eBay as well, if you’re interested in playing with one.)

The manual is truly incredible, with in-depth discussions about not just the mechanism of the game, but commentary on the effect of computing on culture in the long run. We’ll leave you with a thought from the manual, c. 1965:

The strides that man has made in the last 15 years in developing machines that extend and supplement his thinking are truly astounding. Who can say what enormous strides will take place in the next 15 to 30 years?

RoboGames 2013 Medals

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We helped build the gold, silver, and bronze medals for this year’s RoboGames competition, which finished up yesterday in San Mateo, California.

Read on for a bit about how we designed and built the electronics for, and assembled these pretty-darned neat medals.  It’s a story involving LEDs, some remarkable adhesives, and a how to operate a small-scale surface mount production.

Continue reading

Field trip: 2013 Central Valley FRC Regional

Fremont in the pit

We spent this past weekend in Madera, California at the 2013 Central Valley FRC Regional, a FIRST robotics competition. We went with Firebird Robotics Team 3501 from Fremont High School, who we are mentoring and sponsoring.

840 frisbee in the air

The challenge of this year’s game, entitled Ultimate Ascent was to build a robot that could compete to score points on a team with two other robots by shooting frisbees into goals and climbing a pyramid structure while defending against an opposing alliance of three robots.

James Bond with Oddjob

The Firebirds named their frisbee shooting robot “Oddjob” after the James Bond villain who throws his bowler hat with lethal results. One of the green-shirted safety advisors at the event was coincidentally named James Bond, and he was a good enough sport to allow us to take his picture with Oddjob.

840 decapitation warning

We ran into a robot from team 840 sponsored by our friends at Skallops which had a wonderfully appropriate warning sticker on the frisbee shooter reading “DANGER: DECAPITATION HAZARD.”

Mascot Group Photo

We’re relatively new to the world of FIRST, which can be almost cult-like, with participants identifying themselves by team number like a code word or secret handshake. A smaller number means a team that was established earlier. Over the last 20 or so years, the organization has managed to channel the enthusiasm of teenagers which is normally directed toward athletes and celebrities instead toward engineering, programming, and building. The teams are fiercely spirited, bringing their mascots and supporters to cheer them on at competitions.  It is truly incredible to see this much energy directed towards a science and engineering event.

3495 Mindcraft sign

Robots are awarded more points for goals scored during autonomous play, and the highly competitive field is steered toward collaboration and mutual assistance by the alliance aspect. The teams work hard to make sure that their robot will be an asset to any alliance in the hopes that even if they don’t rank highly enough in qualification rounds to be a team captain themselves, they’ll be chosen by one of the alliance captains and advance to the finals. They actively share tools and materials with the other teams, as any of the other robots could be on their alliance during a given match. Parts request announcements in the pits are filled almost as soon as they are announced, although when we heard “Team #### needs an FTL drive” over the PA, we could only laugh.

One of the more visible ways we were able to share was with our yellow gaffers tape, which team 3495 used to make their engraved sign stand out with their team color. We were the beneficiaries of parts, too, with another team generously sharing a metal shaft when one of ours bent during a match.

mascot working in the pit

The teams are typically student driven, with mentors playing an advisory role, supporting the students as they work through problems of design, mechanics, building, programming, and team dynamics. The students work incredibly hard to design and build the robot during just six weeks allowed as the “build season,” and then during the competitions fine-tune, fix, and improve their machine. Even the mascot works just as hard on the robot as everyone else.

3501, 3970, 2643

Through a combination of determination, hard work and luck, our team came out of the qualifying rounds with the top ranking, and then made it all the way to the final game of the elimination rounds, with their ally teams 3970 and 2643. However, our friends from team 840, along with allies 295 and 1678 bested us to win the finals, 2 matches to 1, earning a spot at the championships.

Besides strict competition, there are additional awards and honors are given at these events to recognize technical ingenuity, good design and spirit. Our team received the Judges award, which was summed up rather accurately by one team member as being the award for “general awesomeness.” Congratulations to all of the participating teams, every one of which pulled off building a robot that could play an incredibly challenging game! Our team is headed next to the Silicon Valley Regional event April 4-6, but there are events every week all over the world leading up to the championships April 24-27 in St. Louis. All events are free and open to the public, so get out and cheer on your local robots!

If you have a chance, find a way to mentor, sponsor, or otherwise volunteer to help out your local robot team or competition.  FIRST, and its several associated programs directed at younger students, are some of the best ways that we have to inspire youngsters to pursue careers in science and engineering.  And that’s something that benefits us all.

Super Awesome Sylvia visits Evil Mad Scientist Laboratories

Editor’s note: Super Awesome Sylvia has been visiting Evil Mad Scientist Laboratories for the last week and is guest blogging about her experience and project.

Last year I got to go to RoboGames and watch the competitions. This year I wanted to enter a robot of my own. I looked at the different types of robots you could enter and found out you can enter in a drawbot!

I drew a few sketches of what I wanted my robot to look like. I asked EMSL if I could come over to their shop for a week and make this bot!

When I got there I thought that I would start immediately making the base to my bot but instead we worked in inkscape making detailed drawings.

For the first couple of days I worked on doing a great detailed model on what this bot would look like. This bot was going to be a Watercolorbot!

Oddjob

Also, we visited a FIRST Robotics team while EMSL helped out with their robot named Oddjob. Oddjob is a Frisbee throwing pyramid climbing robot.

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Once we had a good set of drawings for my watercolorbot we used the router to create the basic pieces of the bot and laser cut the carriage that holds the paintbrush. We also used dowel pins, screws, nuts, washers, and string to make a cool amazing bot. I will write more about the robot later but it took four different versions of the carriage to fit it in, three different pulleys, and two different ways to tie the string.

Syliva @ Evil Mad Scientist 1

I am so surprised at how fortunate I was to go to EMSL and build this bot. I had some amazing meals, great experiences and had a lot of fun. I hope to come back soon and build another revision or build another bot! I really liked hanging out and playing games during my free time. Thanks Evil Mad Scientists!!

RoboGames Call for Entries Open

Last Rites and the Electric Boogaloo

RoboGames is now accepting registration for the 2013 competition which will be taking place on April 19-21 in San Mateo, California. Registration deadline is April 1. They’ve also put out a call for papers, demos and talks for the academic symposium with a submission deadline of March 16.

Another related— and very important —event to register for now is BarBot, which will be held in San Francisco on March 1-2. This cocktail robotics exhibition is an amazing amount of fun, and serves as a fundraiser for RoboGames. Registration ends on February 22 for BarBot entries, so it’s now time to get to work on your advanced fluid handling systems!

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At RoboGames, robot builders are rockstars and heroes. It’s one of the few places in our society where engineering and technical ingenuity is exalted in a way that is usually reserved for sports and movie stars. It is open to anyone to participate, and the community of robot builders is incredibly welcoming. They provide huge amounts of information and advice to new and experienced robot builders. There are over 50 different events to compete in, so there is a robot type for everyone.  And it’s not just combat: There’s robot soccer and sumo, navigation and weightlifting, painting and climbing, firefighting and hockey, maze solving, and the all-important bartending event.

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If you have ever thought about building a robot, now is the time. Build your bot and bring it to RoboGames, and maybe soon you’ll be the one autographing robot parts for admiring fans!

Update 1/23/2013: BarBot tickets are now on sale!

Photo credits: Last Rites and the Electric Boogaloo by Annie Blumenberg (CC-BY-ND), Yellow art robot by Patrick Giblin (CC-BY-NC).