Joe, Mike, And Robo-Basho: Making The Dream Real

Tug McGraw, the famous major league baseball pitcher, hit the nail right on the head when he said, "Ya gotta believe." Dreaming is fine - we all do a lot of it. Yet, to turn your dream into a reality you have to believe at deep levels that you can actually do it. Today, in the field of engineering and robotics, more and more young people, and the adults working with them, are developing the critical beliefs and confidence to literally go out and change the world.

We wanted to find out more about how this dramatic turn-around is taking place, and the impact it's having on the people involved. So we tracked down Joseph 'Joe' Johnson, the Chief Technologist and Co-Founder of Robotic Amusements, and asked him to share his experience and insight.

Joe told us a great story involving the FIRST organization, great mentors and role models, having the courage to quit his job in the automotive industry to found a new robotics company with his partner Mike, developing Robo-Basho - a new robot sumo arcade game, and how they plan to actively support and contribute to the robotics community.

Robots Dreams: How did you originally get turned on to technology and decide to make it your life's work with such passion? Was it as a child, teenager, college student?

Joe: The short answer is FIRST.  The long answer is more complex. 

When I was in high school, I was sure that I was NOT going to college.  Then I learned what engineering was.  It was like discovering that I was a member of a lost tribe.  I was an engineer on the inside.  If I needed to go to college to get the world to see that, well, what is four years of school.

Once in college, I was really upset with how engineering is taught.  For me engineering is the most exciting creative activity possible.  And here I was at a Big Time Engineering School with the driest, "by the book" delivery of this beautiful career.  For example, Design classes are the elephant graveyards of many ME departments: Old profs go there to die.  Judging from my design prof, the most important thing about design was how to select an "infinite life" bearing from a catalog -- seriously.  It was sad. 

Meanwhile I met a prof that taught Controls with passion and vigor.  He inspired me to go to Grad School to get a Ph.D. so that I could change Engineering Ed from the inside out.  As it turns out, the more I learned about what a prof does at a Big Time Engineering School, the less I wanted to be a prof.

So, I took a job in industry (GM) and kept an eye open for a way to change the world in other ways.  Eventually, FIRST came up on my radar screen and I was hooked.  From my first year in FIRST, I started looking for a way to make robot building my full time gig. 

After discarding ideas like opening a chain of robot competition venues (working title: "Dr. Joe's Robot Barn"), my partner and I hit on the idea of putting robots in arcades.  The germ of this idea came from the times we'd show our FIRST robots in public (Bring Your Child to Work Day, Demos at local science museums, high schools, etc.).  We would have a line to drive our robot for as long as we had batteries to run the robot.  One thing lead to another and we came across the coin op industry as one where we could turn robots into a business model.

Robots Dreams: Did you have any significant mentors or role models that you consciously or unconsciously wanted to 'grow up to be just like...'?

Joe: My dad was a truck driver.  But, he could fix anything, and he did. 

We spent hours and hours together working on the various cars we had or the well pump or the rotor-tiller or the lawn mower or whatever broke down.  I wanted to be like my dad in that way, but my dad also often said, "I like being a truck driver.  I earn a good living at it.  It put the roof over our head, the clothes on our backs and food our table.......but I come home from work and I am beat.  There are a lot of folks I see working in offices and other places, they use their brains all day.  They may go home tired at the end of the day, but not tired like I'm tired.  There are easier ways to earn a living in this world.  Check some of those out before you decide you want to drive a truck your whole life."

My other heroes are my profs.  Prof. R.E. Klien, Controls Prof at U of I, Urbana-Champaign.  He was far and away the most impressive professor I have ever had.  He often quoted another person about today's youth suffering from an "undigested education" and then said it was he was more interested in helping us absorb the food we've already swallowed rather than giving us more to eat.  He was (and remains)  literally a National Treasure. 

If I thought that there was room in Big Time Engineering for another R.E.Klien, I would have followed in his footsteps.  But as I got closer to finishing my Ph.D., I realized that not only wasn't their room for another R.E.Klien, they didn't really want the one they had -- Prof. Klien was retired soon after I came to this realization.

Another Hero is Prof. Anil Bajaj at Purdue.  I am forever indebted to him for his guidance and help.  He is a great human and a great prof.  I could go on, but I could hardly improve on that last sentence.

Robots Dreams: In the original video it was obvious that you and your partner have a great working and personal relationship. It seems like the two of you have really enjoyed designing and building your product and your company. To what extent has that work (and indirectly robotics) been a catalyst in your relationship?

Joe: Mike and I are solid partners.  We are both passionate people. 

So much so that back at GM (and continuing when GM spun off Delphi), we often pulled all-nighters to meet project deadlines.  Our jobs often involved making show cars for customer shows and sometimes even for shows for the consumer (like the North American Automotive Show).  These project often have impossible deadlines.  We joked that we had a policy of doing 3 impossible things before breakfast.

Whether it was a show car that needed a new door actuator or it was a FIRST robot that had to be re-designed or it was a door latch CAD model that we had to finish in time for a big customer review, we worked well together, especially under pressure.  One quote Mike and I took to saying to our FIRST kids was when we heard them complain about having to re-build the robot or finish their homework before being allowed on the airplane or whatever hard thing they didn't want to do at the moment was, "If it is JUST HARD WORK, then I don't want to hear it (the complaints)." 

Hard work gets you far. The problem with life is that often hard work is not enough.  But once you have your problem down to JUST HARD WORK, that is when you have to suck it up do it -- you can't afford to let such opportunities pass.


Robots Dreams: Why sumo - a Japanese game - rather than something American like football?

Joe: We have ideas for future games and robots that are more complex, but we felt simplicity was important for our first product.

Sumo is such a simple game to explain and understand.  It is NOT simple to play.  There is a lot of strategy involve, but to understand the game is almost trivial.    Stay tuned for future games that will really knock your socks off.

Robots Dreams: What's the big payoff for you and your partner in all of this? Money, fame, glory, the sparkle and delight in kids eyes as they play the games that you designed, the idea that maybe they might be motivated enough to follow a career in technology/robotics...?

Joe: At a minimum, we need to be able to pay the bills.  Both Mike and I have young families.  If Robotic Amusements, Inc. is to survive, we need it to at least pay the bills.

But of course, we have much higher aspirations than mere survival.  In fact, we are hoping to change the world.  It may sound silly, but we are convinced it is within the realm of possibility.   We hope that we will one day be big enough that we can become major sponsors of FIRST and that we are doing it because it makes business sense for us to do so. The target markets for arcade games and the target market for FIRST are almost identical.   We'll see. 

There is a big distance between now and sponsoring the FIRST Championships.  We also have lesser goals along the way.   We'd like to help out sponsoring local FIRST teams and hiring FIRST kids as interns.  We really think that we can make a difference in kids lives in so many ways.

Robots Dreams:  Just by trying, by creating Robo-Basho and starting the company you've already done a lot. Robo-Basho is attracting a lot of media attention - it's been on television and we understand that ROBOT Magazine will have a short article about it in their next issue. It's a great example that will definitely encourage others. We're sure it will even inspire some of them to go forth and do likewise.

Related links:

Robotic Amusements Website - Robo-Basho

FIRST Organization

Robot Magazine


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