Some of the most interesting robot developments tend to go unnoticed because they aren’t startling enough, or lack the ‘bang!’ or ‘Flash!’ to capture the public’s attention. Nevertheless, their impact on the field can be significant.
We could be overstating the signficance of the case, but we believe that Black Tiger Neo’s “Thriller” performance at the 6th ROBO-ONE Gate Dance Competition is a turning point, if not a milestone, in hobby humanoid robotics.
Purists will point out that Black Tiger Neo’s moves don’t closely follow Michael Jackson’s performance, and that the robot can’t really moon walk. Of course, we have to agree. However, the robot’s performance is more that 80% of the way there, at least in our estimation.
Five years ago, hobby level, or even professional/research level for that matter, humanoid robots hardly existed at all, and the few that did could barely walk more than a few faltering steps before falling flat on their face.
But hobbyists persisted. Every six months, like clockwork, they amazed and delighted us with their progress at the biannual ROBO-ONE competitions. We saw them walk, then climb a flight of stairs, then do battle in the ring, then pull themselves along hanging from overhead bars, then work their way across rotating turntables, and, in the case of OmniZero, climb ladders, transform into a rolling vehicle, and even carry their operator around on their backs.
Black Tiger Neo’s case is particularly interesting because the robots developer, Tsutomu Ikeda (aka IKETOMU), isn’t a robot professional, he’s a true hobbyist. Many of the other top ROBO-ONE champion developers are also world class engineers or technologists who have adopted ROBO-ONE robotics as a hobby. For example, Maeda-san, the developer of the OmniZero series of humanoids, is a key member of the Vstone organization and develops robots for a living. Sugiura-san, developer of Dynamizer, is the top wind turbine designer in Japan. Nao Maru, developer of King Kizer, is one of the best designers of large die cast molding systems used to produce huge industrial hydralic and fluid valves.
Ikeda-san, in contrast, obtained his Ph.D. from Tokyo University in a totally unrelated field: agriculture, and spent a significant part of his working career as a researcher in biological science. As a result, his approach to humanoid robot development has taken a very different path from others.
Ikeda has spent countless hours, days, weeks, months, even years, working on Black Tiger Neo, and the robots predecessors. His initial base robot platform was the Kondo KHR-1, but he has extensively modified and enhanced his robots to the point that their performance surprises even the Kondo experts.
And, he is one of the select few ROBO-ONE competitors that have designed their robots to operate autonomously, even in the most competitive battles in the ring. It’s really beautiful to see Ikeda set Black Tiger Neo in the ring, power up the robot, then stand back with his arms crossed to watch his creation do battle against other ROBO-ONE robots that are manipulated via remote control.
Getting back to our original train of thought, Black Tiger Neo’s dance performance is a milestone simply because it marks the point where it will be increasingly difficult for humanoid robotics to ‘wow’ the audience. From here on out, the general public will be less and less astonished by what the small biped robots can do.
Of course there is still lots of room for improvement, and dedicated developers with a passion for humanoids, like Ikeda, will continue to improve the state-of-the-art. But it will become more, and more difficult to really shock, amaze, and delight the audience.
In many ways it reminds us of the point when personal computers ceased to be ‘amazing’ and started to achieve general recognition, use, and acceptance as a commonplace device. For robotics, especially humanoid robotics, that point is still a little way in the future, but probably not as far away as we think.
In any case, we really have to salute and honor developers like Ikeda for what they have been able to achieve, and the inspiration they provide for others around the world.
Biped Robot News Japan: Ikeda’s English language blog