The Japanese have a fascination with trains that seems to be unique in the world. Video arcades here (yes, they still exist in Japan) have console games that let you play train conductor for the Bullet Train and other famous rail lines, and it’s not uncommon to see middle aged adult men along with the queue of kids waiting to enjoy the games.
Most robot contests award outstanding performance. All the awards and glory goes to the smarter competitors that take advantage of the best, often state-of-the-art technology. Of course, that comes at a price, building champion level robots isn’t cheap. And, more importantly, it leaves out the vast majority of people who are interested in robotics but can’t compete at the top level, or can’t afford the cost of entry.
The answer, at least in Japan, is HEBOCON: The Robot Contest for Dummies!
PARROT, well known for creating unique products incorporating interesting technology at affordable prices with a great deal of flair, held a press event in the Akihabara district of Tokyo, Japan in mid-March to preview the BeBop Drone. Although the drone had previously been released in other countries, it was new to Japan users and the media, and drew lots of attention and questions.
Everyone knows how crazy the Japanese are about humanoid robots, but it's hard to really appreciate how extreme the mania is unless you can go behind the scenes and experience it first hand. In mid-March we were lucky enough to have access to all the pit areas for the 10th bi-annual ROBO-ONE Light competition.
Keep in mind that this is just one of the many humanoid competitions that take place regularly in Japan. There are regional competitions across the nation, some colleges and universities stage regular competitions, and some robot companies like KONDO hold competitions as well. It’s hard to get a good estimate of how many people are actively involved in the sport, and learning experience, nationwide. We can only judge from the large crowds of participants and audience that turn out in force for events like this.
Moreover, each one of those robots represents an investment of typically USD$1,500 or more plus countless hours of assembly, testing, motion creation, modifications/improvements, and practice. It’s not unusual for a fan dedicated to the sport to invest USD$10,000 or more constantly evolving and improving their robot over a period of many years.
Competitors come from all walks of life, age groups, and genders. While some of the participants are professional engineers, many are students, housewives, and even truck drivers. The one thing they have in common is a passion for robotics.
When we first heard about OZOBOT, a little over a year ago, all the buzz was about this new robot game piece that would make a dramatic difference in the gaming world. Then, very shortly thereafter, all the press and promotion switched to OZOBOT being a new and innovative way for young learners to learn the basics of programming/coding.
After spending a few days getting to know OZOBOT, our conclusion is that OZOBOT is both, and it is neither. It occupies a specific niche, almost an island, where it delivers significant value and can be highly recommended. Beyond that niche, it really isn’t clear, at least not yet, how far OZOBOT can be expanded or adopted to provide more of an extended learning experience.
OZOBOT’s design is quite innovative. It’s tiny, yet packs a lot of technology inside a body that’s just a little bigger than our thumb. In a nutshell, which is a strangely apt reference since the relative size is the same, OZOBOT is a line follower robot with two small drive wheels and a sensor array on the bottom. As it follows line paths, different color segments tell it to change behavior. The overall concept is very simple and straight forward. Students create paths with different colored segments, either with marking pens or by using their fingers to draw the lines and segments on an iPad or Android tablet. This enables them to quickly grasp the basic concept of programming and coding.
OZOBOT also provides visual feedback. For example, when it passes over a blue colored line segment, one of the robots LEDs glows blue. Students can change the robots mode using a button located on one side of the body.
All line follower robots require some sensor calibration since the operating environments and lighting can vary greatly. For OZOBOT, you just use the mode button to put the robot into calibration mode, a white LED will flash indicating it’s ready to be calibrated, then you place it on the provided calibration card. After a few seconds the LED flashes green, and you’re good to go.
In addition to preprinted line paths and some examples students can use to create their own, the company also supports several different smartphone/tablet applications for both iOS and ANDROID.
One application simulates the line creation process on screen. Actually, we prefer using this app over hand drawing lines since during our tests we were able to achieve much more consistent results that way. However, very young students may prefer the hand drawing method and may find it much more engaging and fun. A second application combines music and rhythm with the robots motions - kind of like a robot disco performance. It’s a fun app, especially for demonstrating the robot, but might get old in a hurry.
OZOBOT’s price is relatively low, typically less than USD$50 for one robot or under USD$100 for the special dual set package. Keep in mind that the robot is non-repairable, at least for anyone with less know-how and skill than an Ultra-Geek, and the built-in battery can’t be replaced. Once the robot breaks, or the battery wears out, you’ll have a cute little paperweight - which isn’t all bad.
So, where does OZOBOT fit in the larger scheme of things? It doesn’t appear to have gained traction as a robot game piece, at least we weren’t able to locate any commercial games that have adopted the technology.
On the other hand, many educators have incorporated the robot into their entry level programs. It seems like a natural fit to kickstart students into the core elements of programming and robotics. What isn’t clear is what the next natural learning step for the students should be. How do they transfer the learning and expand on it? At this point that seems to be a decision for each individual teacher or educator.
Robot Pro Wrestling during RoboGames 2015 in San Mateo, California. Ryuketsu-Kamen, piloted by Yoshifumi Omata, and Thunderbolt, piloted by Yoshihiro Shibata face off in the ring to give the crowds a taste of what real robot pro wrestling in Japan is like.
Omaha and Shibata love introducing their humanoid entertainment robots to children of all ages in hopes that it will inspire some of them to get involved in robotics and STEM learning opportunities, or even purse a career in engineering or science. They are so dedicated that they took vacation time off from their regular day jobs, bought plane tickets, and flew half way across the globe just to compete in RoboGames.
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