If the whole idea of creating a new sports entertainment league that will rival the UFC, WWE and NASCAR for sheer dollars, excitement and danger doesn’t work out, the MegaBots can always do parties. It turns out that a MegaBot is a really good T-shirt cannon.
MegaBots is a startup, based in Oakland, California, doing the kind of work a lot of kids hope to be doing someday, too: building a 15-foot tall, 15,000-pound fighting robot, and hoping it’ll become the centerpiece of a new global entertainment business.
Matt Oehrlein, Gui Cavalcanti and Andrew Stroup, who was later replaced by Brinkley Warren, started the company as a Kickstarter campaign back in 2014. Their goal was to raise $1.8 million, but they managed just over $65,000 — a less than mega haul. That would seem to be the end of it, until earlier this summer when the MegaBots team issued a challenge to a Japanese company called Suidobashi Heavy Industries, which is making its own fighting machines. MegaBots called for a duel, the Japanese accepted, and the company is suddenly back in the spotlight.
MegaBots raised some private funding and got a sponsorship from AutoDesk, and managed to build its roughly $200,000 prototype, which it has taken on the road to build interest and support.
Cavalcanti said the company will take a two-headed approach to building its brand: venture capital funding for the business of creating a fighting robot league, and a second Kickstarter that will hopefully pay for upgrades to the robot, both structural and decorative (think eagle heads on each shoulder, since the robot is now part of “Team America”).
I tracked down the MegaBot at the Computer History Museum in Mountain View, California, where it had been summoned to entertain some august members of the tech community. The bot was baking in the summer heat of the museum’s parking lot, and Cavalcanti and Warren said they’d recently learned that the MegaBot could perform a new trick: using its missile-launcher left arm to fire T-shirts into the air.
The MegaBot can certainly draw a crowd — people crowded around for selfies and questions. But skepticism abounded, too: one spectator in a Maker Faire T-shirt pointed out that the device couldn’t rightfully be called a “robot,” since it has to be piloted by humans. The MegaBot, in fact, requires two pilots: a driver and a gunner.
Warren declares that the presence of humans inside the fighting robots (or, uh, exoskeletons, if we’re being specific) adds the crucial element of danger and excitement that will make a fighting league a big draw. It’s like NASCAR or hockey, he says. These aren’t purely mechanical, remote-controlled gadgets like BattleBots — there are people in there, and the blood lust, as it were, is real.
Critics charge that the MegaBot won’t actually do what other high-profile robotics projects have done, which is to spur innovation and development that could further the field overall and lead to breakthroughs that could save lives, make work more efficient or even do a better job cleaning our houses. Instead, noted the Washington Post, MegaBots is merely violent fantasy, leading to a vision of robotics that bristles with guns and will only militarize robotic development.
After a few hours with the MegaBots crew, it’s clear that their motives aren’t particularly altruistic, and to expect otherwise would be like asking Vince McMahon whether his wrestling empire had led to training breakthroughs for Olympic athletes. It’s just not the point.
And after my own brief ride in the gunner’s seat, and the opportunity to rapid-fire about 80 T-shirts across a parking lot into the foliage above a group of excited children, I admit that if and when the MegaBots duel actually occurs (the team is hoping for summer of 2016), I’d probably watch it. Sometimes, robots are just fun.