Wednesday, December 21, 2005

The Rise, Fall, and Rise of Robotic Combat

In the late 1990’s, one of the highest rated shows on cable television was a program called Battlebots. The Battlebots program consisted of a televised robotic cockfight between two radio controlled vehicles, generally powered by big electric motors and outfitted with weapons designed to inflict damage on its opponent to the point where it would not longer operate. For three minutes the two robots would bang and smash against each other, each trying to win the match by dominating its opponents. Domination could entail hitting its opponent so hard and so often with metal cutting says and pneumatically powered spikes, that it is reduced into a smoking pile of twisted metal. Or it may mean simply emerging from the match with one less scratch.

Television executives tracked a steady decline in viewership and figured out that the general public, at least, had had enough of the concept. After the fourth season, the ratings were such that the Comedy Central programming executives relegated Battlebots to Saturday night, which in television programming circles is where televisions shows go to die. Then, with little fanfare, the plug was pulled and the show was gone.

But Battlebots was just a television show, and for the technical expressives who built robots, this turned out be a good thing.

As long as Battlebots was on the air, this is where almost all nascent robot builders focused their attention. Perhaps a few dozen at most, out of the hundreds and hundreds of robots entered into the Battlebots tournament actually wound up on television. The great majority of builders and their bots took a long, expensive trip to San Francisco and only got to participate in a single match, or if they were lucky and won their first match, got the honor of fighting again. To actually attain the final rounds, a builder would need to win match after match after match. Only a small fraction of the hundreds of entered robots ever saw the glare of the television cameras.

With odds like that, the fun quotient for the average builder wasn’t high enough to justify a cross country trip twice a year, (the interval at which battlebots tournaments were held). When the show was finally cancelled, the focus shifted from a television show for television audiences to watch, to an activity that was all about material participation. There would be no more national audiences or bleachers filled with celebrities, (if indeed the personalities of Carmen Electra and Gary Coleman counted as celebrities.)

Instead, the robot fighting contests and tournaments became local and regional affairs, gritty and low budget for sure, but given the wide dispersion and higher frequency of events, more people could try their hand at building. The rules for building bots was loosened and the activity flowered and expanded from a small cadre of die hard enthusiasts into a more widely dispersed if not quite so serious community of robot builders.

Want to build a battling robot? Then check this out.


Anonymous said...

Nice summary -- but I'm not sure I can agree that "The rules for building bots were loosened...".

Combat robot rules and regulations have always been primarilly about safety. Those regulations have, in anything, become more stringent. There were some things you could get away with in 'the old days' that just won't fly anymore.

Anonymous said...

"In the late 1990’s, one of the highest rated shows on cable television was a program called Battlebots."

Note: BattleBots first aired on Comedy Central in mid-2000, which would make it very late 1990's indeed.

Vrogy said...

Awesome. I'm one of those people you talk about, the next-generation robot builders. I operate a small event in Tallahassee, and I actively build an compete miniature bots.

Anonymous said...

Actually, you have cause and effect, or at least, the chronology, a bit backward.

Fighting robots on a small, informal scale, came long well before any TV shows.

I know this because, as a founding member of the Denver Mad Scientists Club, I believe we essentially invented the concept with the Critter Crunch Contest at the Mile Hi Con SF convention way back in 1985. We took our inspiration from machine performances by Survival Research Laboratories and various contests at MIT's Mobile Robotics Laboratory.

At least one author of a book about the phenomenon, who has researched the subject fairly extensively, agrees and credits us with this somewhat overlooked milestone. I haven't got the title or author to hand, but I can ask on our list and find out.

What's funny and sad is that, when our little contest started to take off, one of our number said, "you know, we ought to copyright our rules, maybe even try to patent the concept or something, and get on TV." - the rest of us poo-poo'ed the very idea and claimed nobody would ever watch a bunch of nerds with fighting robots on TV. *sigh*

Anonymous said...

>>With odds like that, the fun quotient for the average builder wasn’t high enough to justify a cross country trip twice a year, (the interval at which battlebots tournaments were held). <<

Oddly, participant turn out increased drastically every event through #5 with enthusiasm even from those who fell out of the prelims before the tournament started.

The organization did need the money, but a nasty lawsuit with RobotWars ended most interest for adding either shows to one's TV lineup. By the time the suit ended, the world had moved on.

Anonymous said...

it sounds like the robot equivelant of the skatboarding popularity fluctuations described by tony hawk in his autobiography. i would like to try building a robot, i've been captivated by the battlebots show since it aired, but i'm 13 and don't know that much, so i guess i need some help.