A Visit To The Toy Robotics Store…

Everyone knows that you should never go to the grocery store when you are hungry. If you fail to follow that truism, then more often than not you'll end up coming home with bag after bag of stuff that looked good enough to eat as you pushed your cart down the aisles. I should have kept that in mind when we visited the San Francisco area just before Christmas...

As it turned out, we flew into SFO late Monday morning and were shuttled up to our hotel near Union Square. We caught a quick bite to eat for a late lunch, then I took my wife around to some of the department stores. It was after 3:00 pm when we finished, and I knew that the Hobby Engineering store in Milbrae, miles away, would be closing that evening at 5:00 pm. Still, the rest of our visit schedule was already packed to the brim, and I wasn't going to have another chance to go shopping for robot or electronics stuff.

So, I took a chance that I could make it there before closing time, and started off on my journey. It was amazingly simple and straight forward. I walked down the hill from the hotel for a few blocks, then ducked into the local BART station. Luckily I only had to wait for about 10 minutes until the next train arrived for SFO/Milbrae. The only surprise during the BART ride was when the train pulled into the SFO terminal and just sat there for a while. I kept peeking at my watch, but eventually the doors closed, the train reversed itself out of the station, and headed for the end of the line. It arrived at the Milbrae station right around 4:20 pm - which didn't give me much time, but still might be workable.

Then I ran into a major problem. The signage at the BART/CalTrain station, like almost all stations, seems to assume that everyone already knows where to go... At first there didn't seem to be any way out of the station! All the signs pointed to either a BART or CalTrain platform, when all I wanted to do is exit the station on the El Camino side. And there didn't seem to be any station staff in sight. After a minute or so of confusion, I decided to take the escalator down to the CalTrain platform to see if I could find anyone to ask. Once I got down to the platform level it was obvious that the CalTrain platform is completely open. All I had to do was walk across the street and I was out of the station. Simple, but not obvious to someone who has never been there before.


From the station it was only about a block up to El Camino. About that time I realized that I had spent most of my US cash earlier in the day, so I stopped at a bank ATM to withdraw some spending money. From there it was less than a 3 minute walk to the Hobby Engineering store. My watch, which is often wrong, said it was going on 4:42 pm...

I made it! I have to say that I wasn't disappointed at all. I was like a kid in a candy store. All the robotics stuff I had seen and drooled over on the Internet was right there, ready and waiting for me to pick it up, play with it, and debate over which goodies I just couldn't live with out. And, the clock was running. I only had about 15 minutes to look at everything, pick out what I wanted, and pay for it...

I found IR photo-sensor kits that would give my robot some 'eyes', whisker feelers so that it could sense and avoid running into walls, a magnetic compass module, a 2 axis accelerometer module, servo wheel encoders, assortment packs of resistors, ... the list goes on and on. There was a whole bookcase full of books on robotics and electronics experimentation, and display cases with lots of different robot kits. Under other circumstances I could have spent a whole afternoon there just picking through the parts. I guess the fact that my time was so short ended up saving me quite a bit of money in the end. I rapidly put together my 'shopping cart' of stuff, and asked the store clerk to tell me what the damages were going to be.

She was extremely helpful and knowledgeable. Unfortunately there was one item in my cart, I think it was the wheel encoders, that wouldn't come up on her computer.... I had visions of her asking me to come back tomorrow.... Then, much to my surprise, she asked me to wait for a moment then reached up and pounded on the wall right behind her!

About two minutes later, Al, the owner of Hobby Engineering, came rushing through the front door of the store to help. He had been back in the warehouse (behind the wall) preparing some mail order shipments, and didn't have a cell phone with him - which is why she resorted to the bang on the wall message technique. Al quickly updated the database, completed my order, and stuck around for a friendly chat. It was great to meet him face to face after having exchanged emails from half way across the world.

I'm happy to report that the service and support I've received from Hobby Engineering has been excellent - both via mail order, and in person at their Milbrae store. I highly recommend stopping by their store if you happen to be in the area.

You might also enjoy:

  1. Robots, Robots Everywhere
  2. Arrival
  3. Lego Mindstorms as a Prototyping Tool
  4. Another Hobby Engineering and a Pleasant Surprise
  5. Scatter vs. Reflection – IR Sensors – Robotics
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