Enter the Movits; high-tech toys. Tim Onosko.
There is a growing interest in robotics, and some wags are saying that personal robots, today, are at approximately the same stage of development that personal computers were eight or nine years ago. That may be true. Certainly, the robots now available to experimenters--Heath's Hero, the RB5X, Androbot's Topo and Bob, and several manipulator "arms"--are about as expensive as the first microcomputers were--and about as useful. (That is to say "very" and "not very.")
It doesn't take thousands of dollars to acquaint yourself with some of the principles of robotics, though. A new series of robot hobby kits is now being imported from, you probably guessed, Japan, where the robot has achieved something of the status of cultural hero. These models, called Movits (pronounced "Move its") stand to introduce American technology buffs to a new hobby.
Fifteen Movits kits are available in Japan, and ten of these are now being distributed by OWI, Inc., a California importer, with more promised for the near future. The models range from simple, but unique, mechanical movements--mainly walkers and wheeled platforms--to programmable "turtles" and moving machines that sense their environments. The more complex models use microchips mounted on small printed circuit boards. All are battery powered and are built around plexiglass body parts and bases. They come in kits to assemble, and parts are meticulously labeled and packaged in tiny plastic bags.
Best of all, the instruction sheets furnished make assembly very easy, although, because of their size, it clearly requires patience, dexterity, or small hands. The circuit boards are already assembled in the American versions. A screwdriver and needle nose pliers are the only tools needed; a miniature metric wrench is included with each kit.
So what do the robots actually do? For one thing, they remind us that at least half the importance of robot design is innovative mechanics. The Movits use several basic movements. Two models, the Sound Skipper and Skipper Mecha, walk on two widely-based legs in a skipping motion. (The Tsunawatari Monkey uses a variation on this design, but moves hand-over-hand on a string or wire.) The Movits named Piper Mouse and Peppy are built on tricycle, wheeled bases. The Memocon Crawler and Line Tracer II also ride on three wheels and are classical "turtles" by design. The Avoider and Turn Backer have the most unique movements, a very clever, six-legged design. In motion, these look like alien puppies as they scurry around and reverse directions. Another robot, Mr. Bootsman, uses a variation of this scheme.
Of course, without intelligence of some sort, these are just fascinating mechanical toys. A few of them, in fact, are only that. Skipper Mecha and Mr. Bootsman lack the circuitry that would make them true robots. Four others, the Monkey, Sound Skipper, Turn Backer and Piper Mouse have simple, sound-activated cycles. (A little condensor microphone hears the commands of hand clapping or a whistle.) Peppy has a microphone on a boom that can also detect a collision with a wall or object, then turns and continues on its way. The Avoider and Line Tracer II have infrared sensors. Avoider detects reflections from an onboard infrared diode and uses it to "see" if an object is in its path. Line Tracer does just that; using infrared light, it will follow a line drawn on a sheet of paper or a tape on the floor. (If only Lionel trains could do the same thing.)
The Memocon Crawler, the most sophisticated of the Movits, is probably the most interesting to computer users. Crawler can be programmed to go left, right, or straight ahead, to beep (via a miniature onboard speaker) or flash its LED headlight. As in the Logo programming language, each step represents a unit of time and, in this case, distance. This is a form of simple, sequential control, and only one other command--essentially a repeat or jump back to the beginning--is allowed. One very nice hardware feature is a touch-sensitive reset switch located on the bottom of the printed circuit board.
Crawler is programmed via a small keyboard furnished with the kit, which you assemble. "The "keys" are actually flexible plastic with conductive rubber contacts.) An attractive feature of this kit is that it can also be interfaced very simply to a small computer. (No mention of this is made in the instructions, however.) The keyboard can be replaced by a connection to any parallel data port. Only five data lines (bits) and common ground are used and programming can be accomplished through PEEKs and POKEs in Basic.
I have tried this and it works. A Commodore 64 or Vic-20 is ideal because of the "user ports," and a simple driver program can be written in as few as ten lines of Basic code. No electronics are required, and the only difficult part was finding a "header-type" connector to attach to the Crawler's keyboard port.
Two more Movits have been released in Japan. The Medusa is an experiment with a new four-legged walking system and is reminiscent of the walking tanks in "Star Wars." The second, called Circular, is the first radio-controlled Movit. It uses a truly unique motion system based on drive wheels and concentric discs that is a bit too complex to describe here. It, too, could probably be interfaced to a microcomputer, but would require some additional electronics to do so. Circular requires FCC approval before it can be sold in the U.S. No decision has yet been made about introducing Medusa here.
Hisashi Kojima, the Movits' 31-year-old designer, isn't immune to the possibilities of linking his models to computers, and, in fact, promises some surprises in the near future. Hiro Okayama of OWI, Inc., has seen some of the forthcoming designs, but will yield only that they are "very impressive." One guess is that future designs could include a small arm or a robot the can be computer-controlled, yet responds to its environment. Having seen all the current designs, I can hardly wait.
The Movits are not inexpensive toys. They range from about $20 for the simplest to about $75 for the Memocon Crawler. Some mail order advertisements have appeared, and Hiro Okayama says that they are available through the chain of Heathkit stores. For further information, contact OWI, Inc., 1938-A Del Amo Boulevard, Torrance, CA 90501.
Robot building appears to be a growing hobby in Japan. There seems to be no reason why it couldn't catch on in the U.S. Kojima brought one of his "Micro Mouse" designs with him to the Winter Consumer Electronics Show, where the Movits were introduced. (There are "Micro Mouse" competitions in Japan, where hobbyists build moving platforms capable of learning and navigating through mazes.) Hobby robots are at least as satisfying as radio-controlled cars, boats, and airplanes, and are no more difficult to build. One can only dream of the possibilities. And, of course, it would be nice to see some competing designs originate in the United States.
One could question the real value of building toy or hobby robots. After all, the Movits will never fetch your pipe and slippers, do the house or yardwork, or function in any remotely practical way. Right now, they serve to educate about the technology which makes them possible. They might make nice little electronic housepets, the equivalent of a gerbil or hamster, or they could, in future designs, become clever watch dogs. Most important, however, is that they fulfill a real growing need for constructive play.
Long live the Movits!