Robots are great, no question - we love them. At the same time, we always try to keep in mind that behind every robot there's a human designer, and behind everyone of those human designers there's an interesting story. We're interested in new, innovative robot designs, and we're just as interested in hearing what motivates their designers to create them. In some small sense, if we can understand what motivates passionate robot creators, then perhaps we can clone and proliferate the process.
So, when we were recently alerted to some really slick robots being designed by a small startup company named "Mobiru Micro Inc.", we decided to chat with the company's founder, Roger Mertin, to see what makes him, and his robots, tick. Roger was extremely open and frank with us, and even gave us permission to use some of his photos for this report.
Lem: Thank you very much for sharing your history and experience with the Robots Dreams readers. Obviously you have a passion for robotics. When, and how, did that all start?
Roger: I guess my interest in robots started in the 70's when I first started to watch the "Six Million Dollar Man." I was about 7 or 8 at the time. My friends and I were completely engrossed with all things futuristic. It wasn't just about robots, but the fact that robots would play a role in helping mankind explore the last great frontier, space.
We would pour over the "How and Why Wonder" books that covered such topics as the Moon and Interplanetary Travel, and my personal favorite "Robots and Electronic Brains." Then came Star Wars, then the Micronauts (Microman in Japan), followed by the Shogun Warriors (Mazinger-Z in Japan.) This gave me me an appreciation for Japanese robot aesthetics and functionality.
Lem: That seems to have made a lasting impression on you. Could you explain in a bit more detail?
Roger: One of the cool things about micronauts was the fact that you could take them completely apart and then reassemble them with other micronauts to create completely new robots or machines with new functionality. This concept is something that has stayed with me throughout the years, and is one that I am trying to
incorporate into my own robot designs.
Lem: Were there other major influences, like a significant teacher or mentor.
Roger: I grew up in a small northern Canadian town that had long winter months and only one road in. I spent the first few years of my childhood in the hospital due to an illness so I developed quite an imagination to keep me entertained which I think stood me well when I was older. During the long winter days I would draw and build robots with whatever I could get my hands on. My mother would often scold me for drawing pictures of nothing but robots.
One day, my father, who was a mechanic, saw that these drawings were in effect "blue prints" and that I was building up robots based on them. From then on, he brought home all sorts of junk, relays, batteries, small motors, old joysticks, wire, etc for me to play with. He even built me a workbench from old railroad ties. Soon I had a soldering iron and was copying circuits from my older brother's Radio Shack 130 in 1 electronic set to put into my robots.
Lem: So, your interest in robotics just seemed to continue growing and expanding over the years.
Roger: In high school, I built a functioning hobby robot arm from scratch, for a regional science fair.I made it from scraps of aluminum that I cut, drilled and riveted by hand. It was manually controlled with switches and a joystick. I won second place in my category. Later I would work on interfacing it with my ZX81 computer.
Lem: Sounds like a home-brew Armatron. That must have been a lot of fun, and a great learning experience. What about your career and interests after high school?
Roger: Eventually I made my into a polytechnic institute where I studied Electronic Engineering Technology. After graduating with honors I quickly found employment with a local firm developing embedded touch screen controllers for industrial PC's. After that I moved on to the present company I work at developing battery chargers and analyzers. I write firmware for embedded systems that control many OEM battery chargers. Some companies that I have developed chargers for include Harris, HP, Compaq, Medtronics, Revivant, NYSE.
I met my wife, got married, and now we have a wonderful 4 year old daughter. Between work and the responsibilities of family life, my interest in robots slowly receded into the background. Eventually an idea would flare up and I would jot it down in a notebook for future reference.
Lem: Something must have retriggered your passion for robotics.
Roger: A couple of years back I had bout with a kidney stone. I was convalescing in bed and my wife was kind enough to bring me a book from the library to
cheer me up. It was an old Tab book called "How To Build Your Own Robot Pet" by Frank Dacosta. I skimmed through it, taking me back to the formative years of my childhood and early teens.
Like Prometheus stealing fire from the gods and set in my mind, the passion for robots was ignited and set ablaze again. Feverishly I set about drawing up new designs, many ideas of which made it some of the robots shown on my website such as the MAASFlex and Proteanaut.
I decided that I wanted to capture back the reason for being interested in technology. The reason why I pursued the career that I did. The feeling of elation that comes with discovery and creativity. I was tired (and still am) of tedious test reports for ISO requirements and and quality assurance, that are the unfortunate trappings of product development.
Lem: It must have been a dramatic change for you, and your family.
Roger: My wife says I have "Robot Fever." I like all manner of robotics and have several from different companies littered about my workshop which my
daughter loves. Robosapiens, Omnibots, the ubiquitous N.P. 5357, Micronauts, etc. For my daughter I have a large box of Meccano in my workshop for her to rummage through and create with, as often she does when I am writing code or doing a board layout. She says she is building a robot dog. It makes me happy to see a new generation being inspired as I was.
Lem: People, and society in general, are really struggling to come to terms with how robots will co-exist with us in the future. What's your personal perspective?
Roger: I view the robot as being the ultimate tool. I want to build robots that are like Swiss Army knives, multifunction tools that can be configured for their
users. There is a essay by Arthur C. Clarke called "The Obsolescence of Man" from a book he wrote back in the early sixties called "Profiles of the Future." He describes the robot of the future not being "walking jukeboxes" or "mechanized suits of armor" but rather a "general purpose, disembodied intelligence", "smaller and neater" with "quick-release connectors allowing it to be coupled to an unlimited variety of sense organs and limbs."
This concept seems to fit with modern aesthetics. Gone are the l arge stereo players, in are the mp3 players. We are a gadget happy people. A small, neat portable robot that can configured on the fly with a host accessories, to me at least, seems more appealing than having to cart around a large "walking jukebox." I want a robot I can fit into my backpack. It is this design goal in mind with which I hope to found Mobiru Micro's product development on.
Lem: Thanks for sharing your story, and your dreams with our readers. We'll be looking forward to hearing more about the Mobiru Micro products, adventure, and success.