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Maker Faire 2012: Roy Was My Favorite Robot of the Show

By Wesley Fenlon

Roy's creator is using Kickstarter to put animatronic kits in the hands of interested makers. It's hard to resist a robot wearing a Hawaiian shirt.

Throw a rock in Maker Faire, and you'll probably hit a robot. Or, at least, someone dressed like a robot. See, there are a lot of robots at Maker Faire. Some dance and some roll around all day, but the coolest robot I saw at the show wasn't quite so mobile. Roy didn't have legs or wheels, so he couldn't get around the show like R2-D2 or a Dalek. The laser-etched wood and 28 servo motors that formed Roy's body made up for it. His Hawaiian shirt, voice box and tendency to wave his arms around with the familiar whine of servo motors constantly drew a crowd to Roy's booth.

Roy's creator Brian Roe started building the robot as an extension of his work on puppets in the movie business. To keep things cheap, he tried using a laser etcher to carve Roy's body out of wood. That's what really caught my eye: the balsa-colored material was a departure from the silvers and steels of most Maker Faire bots, and Roy looked like a low tech Terminator endoskeleton. Well, only the wood looked low tech--it was covering an obviously complex series of wires and motors giving Roy control over his eyes, mouth, wrists, and even individual fingers.

Photo Credit: Brian Roe

Laser etching allowed Roe to do some fancy patterning on Roy's arms, but the obvious benefits of using wood are affordability and weight. I held a small wrist piece, and it was far sturdier than its heft led me to expect. The full arm consists of more than 100 pieces, many of which are notched like puzzle pieces to slide together during construction. But Roy is more than just a pretty face.

The servos attached to Roy's frame made him genuinely expressive. They worked in tandem with an animation routine Roe programmed in Visual Show Automation, which I spotted all over the show floor after leaving Roe's booth. He hopes to Kickstart the rest of Roy's body--the robot still needs upper arms, shoulders and a torso--through a series of individual projects. He also wants to build a community of tinkerers around the project to come up with better ways to build Roy. While I was studying Roy's face (he's got some nice dentures, for a robot) someone spent a couple minutes talking to Roe about animating in Blender, and how cool it would be to link Roy's arm up to a 3D model for animation.

That sounded awesome. If one random attendee at Maker Faire could suggest such a cool concept for Roy, what could a whole Internet community dream up? I don't know if there are enough people on Kickstarter interested in animatronics to hit the $8000 goal for Roy's arm--the first piece of the project--but I hope there are. I really want to see the fully-assembled Roy 2.0.

A $180 pledge to the Kickstarter nets Roy's hand and forearm pieces and eight hobby servos (which cost about $10 a pop online) along with instructions on how to assemble the whole thing. That's a pretty sweet starter kit to get into animatronics. Aspiring engineers will love it, and I don't know if there's a nerdy kid alive who could resist programming an animatronic hand to flip people off.