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Fri, Nov 12, 2004 - Page 12 News List

Robosapien storms into toy market

TOY STORY Developed by a former NASA engineer who came up with a new technology, the robot has won a cult following since being launched in February

AFP , HONG KONG

Mark Tilden, inventor of WowWee Limited's Robosapien toy, poses in front of some of the company's products in Hong Kong Tuesday. The company yesterday was preparing to roll its millionth unit off the production line at its Chinese factory.

PHOTO: AFP

Tokyo's skyline has been regularly menaced by the skyscraper-munching Godzilla, but now it has another foe -- Robosapien, one of the hottest toys in the run-up to Christmas.

A homemade movie casting the robot in the role usually reserved for a man in a rubber monster suit is one of thousands of Internet videos, pictures and hacking guides that have sprung up around the toy.

As Robosapien's maker, Hong Kong-based toy company WowWee, prepared to roll the millionth unit off the production line at its Chinese factory yesterday, inventor Mark Tilden said he was astounded at the geek cottage industry that has sprung up around the robot.

"These guys are nuts," Tilden, a huge bear of a man, roars in laughter at the mention of the Robosapien Destroys Tokyo video posted on one of many fan Web sites.

"You'd be amazed what people are doing with these things. It's hilarious. But it's fantastic. It shows it has wide appeal."

Robosapien has exploded onto the world toy market since its launch in February.

Boasting the scientific knowledge of former NASA robotics engineer Tilden -- who part-built a probe sent to gather climate data from Mars -- it claims to be the first mass-produced robot.

Already it has won some 20 awards -- including two from famed London toy store Hamley's -- and has sold some 600,000 units.

Radio-controlled and powered by seven tiny motors that enable the toy to emulate the movements of humans, users can program it to do an almost infinite number of manoeuvres, from picking up and throwing objects to break dancing.

Toy experts and consumers alike have been drawn not only to the high-tech gadgetry that has gone into it, but also Robosapien's more unusual human features: as well as dancing and walking, moving not unlike a toddler, it also belches and breaks wind.

"It's me inside this thing," says Tilden, a British-born naturalized Canadian who won his spurs working for the US military at the Los Alamos National Laboratories. "I have recreated my personality inside this little guy."

Tilden designed the toy as a vehicle for a new breakthrough in robotics he'd discovered.

NASA refused to help him develop the science as did many other scientific institutes. A toy buff, he decided to take it to the toy industry instead.

"The science community was not willing to run with it, but the toy industry said `hell yeah,'" Tilden boasts.

He's keeping the actual science secret -- "there is more industrial espionage in the toy industry than the military intelligence industry" -- but believes it could revolutionize robotics.

"It is light, small and requires very little power, that's the holy grail of robotics."

Like all the best toys, Robosapien appeals to adults as well as children.

The robot has also attracted the attention of amateur robotics enthusiasts who have pulled it apart to create new, and often disturbing, "hacks" of the toy.

One Web site has transplanted a Swiss army knife onto Robosapiens head, while another has replaced its arms with other utilities, such as a cork-screw. Many fans have also converted their robots into mobile radio controlled video cameras.

On the lunatic fringe, one man in New York has filmed himself being pulled on a sleigh by 20 of the robots, which he whips as he is hauled along a pavement, and another bought a dozen which he has programmed to salute his Darth Vader doll.

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