Wednesday, May 9, 2007

A Robot for the Masses (Robo Sapien Development, Manufacturing and Marketing Process)

Mark Tilden, a robotic physicist formerly of Los Alamos National
Laboratory and NASA, invented Robosapien, or at least the prototype, in
an intense three-week effort in 2001



Tilden, who is in his 40's, described it as ''the first real mass-marketed humanoid robot.''



Wow Wee's factory in Shenzhen was turning out more than 5,000
Robosapiens a day in the long run-up to the Christmas season. One and a
half million Robosapiens have been sold worldwide -- against original
estimates of 50,000 in the first year(The robot is sold in the United States in the usual toy venues, as well as in stores like Best Buy and the Sharper Image.)



Wow Wee's founder and president, Peter Yanofsky, saw Tilden on the
Discovery Channel in a program called ''Robots Rising'' in 1998. Tilden
and his BEAM robotics, his insectlike machines and the multiple
creations of his robot ''Jurassic Park'' were featured. Yanofsky turned
to his wife and said, ''I can make money with Tilden.'' Soon after,
Yanofsky contacted him. Tilden began consulting part time for Wow Wee
while he worked at Los Alamos. But in 2001, after leaving Los Alamos to
become a full-time consultant, he worked nonstop for 21 days building
the first Robosapien prototype.



In 1998, Yanofsky sold Wow Wee, which was then doing $60 million in
sales annually, to Hasbro. That $3 billion company was attracted to Wow
Wee because of its successful Animaltronics and Dinotronics toys -- for
example, its vividly animated T. rex dinosaur. Yanofsky stayed on with
the company, believing that under the toy giant's umbrella, Wow Wee
would have even more latitude to engage in developing cutting-edge
toys. But the move proved to be a mistake. Hasbro canceled Robosapien
several times, and Wow Wee shrank to a $15 million company. Refusing to
let Robosapien die, Yanofsky amicably negotiated out of Wow Wee's
contract with Hasbro last year.



''They didn't believe in what we were doing,'' Yanofsky told me. ''They
didn't think there was a need. Their top brass asked, 'Where's the play
value?''' The need that Yanofsky perceived was that the world was now
full of PlayStation-savvy older children and young adults and that no
one was catering to their sense of play offline. ''What about the guy
who says, 'I want a robot!''' Yanofsky said. ''The virtual world
dominates the toy industry. You play with a cartoon on a screen. For
years, the software business has been getting all the young creative
guys, but now we have scientists and geeks who want to come in on our
development thing. We want people who are creative and eclectic and can
take this industry to where the software industry is.''



eight motors ''perfectly synchronized, without any digital programming at all.''



ome of the key members of the Robosapien team were young American and
European engineers and software specialists working in Wow Wee's
office. Others were local people, typically graduates of Hong Kong
universities and technical institutes that offer programs like a
three-year diploma in creative-toy and intelligent-product technology.
Others were from mainland China, employed by the vendors' factories in
Shenzhen, where Robosapien is assembled and where much of the most
crucial engineering and premanufacturing work on the toy was done.
(Vendors compete for the contracts to manufacture products at their
plants in China and then also provide the labor.)



Wow Wee finally found a vendor factory that understood the engineering
well enough, but then that vendor went bankrupt. ''We were out driving
around,'' Tilden recalled, ''trying to rescue our robots from Dumpsters
so our rivals wouldn't get them.'' Soon after, the Wah Shing plant in
Shenzhen
became Robosapien's main manufacturer.



In the summer of 2003, Tilden spent eight straight days at the Wah
Shing plant with Edward Chan, a Wah Shing electrical engineer, and a
small team of other engineers
. Tilden literally acted out and performed
the robot's functions, even the Robosapien dance, and Chan, at the
computer, turned them into code.



More so than will be the case in future Wow Wee humanoids, Tilden made
many of the final decisions about the toy's development. He decided on
its appearance and character. Should the robot be like a Japanese TV
robot? RoboCopish? ''Star Wars''-like? Tilden wanted it to be a robot
that looked like a robot and was ''pure bot,'' without any merely
decorative features. Tilden insisted that the robot not speak English,
or any other language. Instead, he told me, ''I put my own body
gestures and even sounds in there.'' When the machine grunts, it is
Tilden's recorded grunt you hear, his ''ouch,'' wolf-whistle and belch.
If the original prototype had 24 transistors, Robosapien has millions
in one small, intricately patterned board controlling all seven motors
and one tiny chip holding 12 kilobytes of programming. Tilden recalled:
''We took analog, converted it into digital, through my skills and the
skills of many designers, and came up with a seven-motor design that
basically beats any of its rivals by up to five times in price.''













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1 comment:

sarj said...

The all-important electronics board:

If the original prototype had 24 transistors, Robosapien has millions in one small, intricately patterned board controlling all seven motors and one tiny chip holding 12 kilobytes of programming. Tilden recalled: ''We took analog, converted it into digital, through my skills and the skills of many designers, and came up with a seven-motor design that basically beats any of its rivals by up to five times in price.''