The Western Eye science & technology team attended an impressive future technology exhibition earlier this month. Our assistant sci/tech editor, Antony Poveda, gives us his personal technology highlight from Venturefest 2013.
‘Who knows what Pokemon is?’
Silas Adekunle, UWE student and entrepreneur, asks this near the start of his five minute Venturefest pitch and hands shoot up all over the room. A possibly surprising response given that most belong to grey suited investors of a certain age, not your usual card swapping crowd. A successful, moneymaking idea is something they do recognise, though, and it is the endless digital world of Pokemon that Silas and Reach Robotics hope to emulate in the physical one, becoming part of the future of child’s entertainment in the process. These young innovators have spent the best part of the last year developing and building small robots that will be able to fight with each other in any real world environment.
This is not your everyday Farmville knock-off played out on a tiny screen as you ignore the other commuters:
‘Look around you. This room could be the play area.
Silas explains, before detailing a business plan that would have the Dragons salivating. The appeal of modifiable, personalized fighting robots controlled through your smartphone is massive, and most likely not restricted to the child’s toy market that Reach Robotics will be focusing on first. By combining the innate coolness of fighting with your friend’s robots with the ability to level them up à la the persistent reward system famously found in Call of Duty, and then adding in the idea to license the technology to different companies to adapt as they wish, Reach Robotics products could become the next must have on any Christmas list, for adults and children alike. The success of the ‘games and models’ melding Skylanders points the way, this is the next logical step.
So, how close is the company to this goal? At Venturefest Silas demoed a couple of multi-legged cat-sized prototypes which demonstrated some of the movements that the finished article would have, including a pounce and a fast run. These early prototypes are in the process of being scaled down to something as small as a kitten and the brightly coloured, detailed 3D printed models at the Reach Robotics stand give a nice idea of the final product. Silas, himself a current Robotics Engineering student here at UWE, says he takes inspiration from the natural world in order to give the robots lifelike behaviour, and they certainly have a familiar spidery slither to their crawling action. Where these little guys will differ from your normal radio controlled toy is how they will be able to learn from their experience, so that the more you play with them, the more sophisticated and effective their attack and defence moves become. You will also be able to upgrade your robot by buying perks and power-ups, some of which would be physical items such as armour, whilst some, like faster healing, could be virtual. Using augmented reality by observing the action through your phone could also be an option, adding glowing shields and long range fireballs to the arena of battle. Oh, the possibilities.
Silas was at Venurefest looking for investors to help with the further research and development of the robots, and they certainly have a chance to get on board this inventive idea early. During his pitch, Silas was questioned why the big toy companies are not already doing this work themselves. He pointed out that, historically, large companies have bought up smaller startups in order to acquire their technology rather than do the work themselves. For example, earlier this year Hasbro bought Backflip Studios, a purely virtual app development company, for a staggering $112million. Companies will likely be falling over themselves to get a piece of the battle.
Of course, it is no secret that the gaming industry is hugely competitive these days but it is also diluted; for every Angry Birds there are a thousand disposable, poorly developed apps that offer little to no value to the gamer. What Reach Robotics are trying to offer is something that is genuinely missing from the field of play: a tangible real-world experience, where the virtual side serves to augment the fun. This approach could rightly see them become a household name in the next few years, as robots of all types become common-place in our homes.
So, most importantly, how do we get one as soon as possible? Well short of investing yourself there is a simple no-risk way: by coming up with the name for the robot. In exchange for a great memorable name, Silas is offering your own robot when the first batch rolls off the production line. Warning: Gladiotronics is already taken.