Judging by the popularity of Comedy Central’s BattleBots, the BBC’s Robot Wars, and TLC’s Robotica, mechanized combat remains one of the most engrossing — and enduring — spectator sports on television. Something about mechanical monstrosities fighting each other to the death still manages to engross a massive cross-section of the TV-viewing populous. But unlike, say, football, soccer, tennis, or any other sport, robot battles are an event that’s remain relegated to the realm of TV: the logistics engineering a ‘bot, finding a worthy competitor, and safely facing off against one another presents an insurmountable challenge to even the sport’s most ardent fans. Or, at least it did.
MekaMon, the product of startup Reach Robotics, is in many ways the embodiment of battle robot fanatics’ dreams: a fully articulated, remote-controlled robot that engages enemies in combat. Unlike the robots on TV, though, the “losers” of battles escaped unscathed. And combat’s just the start of what they’re capable of.
Thanks to infrared camera arrays, robots react appropriately when shot.
Reach Robotics is the brainchild of Silas Adekunle, a 25-year-old Nigerian who immigrated to the United Kingdom at the age of 11 and taught himself robotics. It’s already attracted impressive venture capital pedigree — the team of engineers, game designers, computer vision Ph.D.s, and experts from Airbus and Aston Martin have attracted the backing of firms including London Venture Partners, Qualcomm Ventures, Passion Capital, Techstarts, Hardware Club, and Iglobe Partners. That early momentum means that MekaMon, Reach Robotics’ first product, won’t go the traditional crowdfunding route — rather than launch on Indiegogo or Kickstarter, it will ship directly to customers in the coming months.
MekaMon robots, the result of more than three years of research and a 27-stage iterative development process, are insectoid in appearance. Put simply, they look like giant plastic spiders that’d give any arachnophobe nightmares for weeks. More than 10 individual motors drive the four “legs,” each capable of 30 degrees of freedom, that facilitate forward, backward, and diagonal movement. They do more than just move: A customizable range of parameters let the MekaMon robots trot, crawl, waddle, and perform dozens of canned taunt animations designed by a former Industrial Light and Magic animator who worked on the Transformers film series.
One of the MekaMon’s headlining features is a battle mode, Last Man Standing, that pits up to four of the ‘bots against each other. Before the match begins, contenders select offensive and defensive abilities via the MekaMon companion app, using a smartphone. Then, they swap their bots’ snap-on physical armaments — a railgun for a laser, for instance, or a shield for a weapon — to their liking. Finally, once the battle begins, they fire at will, maneuvering their MekaMon robots behind chairs, tables, and any other real-world objects that present an opportunity for cover.
Thanks to infrared camera arrays, robots react appropriately when shot, fidgeting after sustaining a blows from barrages of bullets and mimicking electrocution when zapped with an energy beam. When a victor emerges — when an opponents’ in-app health bar reaches zero, that is to say — the losing robots’ mechanical legs fall limp and twitching to the ground.
“We’re bringing back a childhood curiosity.”
For those who don’t have MekaMon-touting friends handy, there’s a single-player campaign driven by a nifty bit of augmented reality. The mode tasks MekaMon pilots with destroying an invading force of aliens visible in the smartphone app. As they progress through waves of enemies, they earn points and upgrades they can spend on special abilities and digital items that fortify health, improve recovery times, and boost weapon damage.
The team’s already hard at work on peripherals and add-ons. But they insist MekaMon won’t become a battle of pocketbooks, so to speak, rather than skill. “It’s not pay to win,” Adekunle told Digital Trends. “We’re giving players more options.”
And he stresses that the ‘bots do more than battle. “We’re bringing back a childhood curiosity,” Adekunle said. “It harkens back to a time when kids played with sticks and turned the living room duvet into a fortress. I think we’ve lost that in the digital age, and we’re basically trying to bring it back.” To that end, the Reach Robotics team is finalizing a software development kit (SDK) that will let amateur roboticists to program their own routines.
“We want people to be able to learn to program with this,” Adekunle said. “We want to make the experience educational.” He expects it to become available later this year.
“At the root of everything we build is the premise that gaming is an experience that goes beyond a screen. We imagine a world where things come to life in front of you,” said Adekunle. “Our inspiration came from building robots in STEM classes with underprivileged students in the U.K..”
MekaMon starts at $330, up to $600 for a pack of two. They last an hour on a charge, weigh about 2.2 pounds, and are expected to begin shipping in January.