Of FIRST Robotics “Lunacy” and A Shout Out to “Dancin'” Woz

“Robot coming through…Robot.”

That was the cry, heard throughout the day Saturday at Boston University’s Agganis Arena, scene of the Boston regional finals of the annual FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology) robotics competition. The robots were constantly on the move as teams ushered them back and forth from the competition area—think basketball, with lots of twists for this year’s theme—to the staging area/work zones “backstage.”

As always, the finals were a wild affair with lots of screaming and yelling, blaring rock music, face paint galore, and costumes that would have done Rocky Horror fans proud (to give you a clue, the guy announcing all the teams wore a cape and skated around the floor on roller blades). I was there for much of the morning, speaking with competitors and planners and a few guests that included iRobot founders Helen Greiner (an Xconomist) and Colin Angle, human genome sequencer Craig Venter, Marc Hodosh (another Xconomist and chair of Boston FIRST), and FIRST National Advisor and MIT engineering professor Woodie Flowers, among others. (Flowers was lowered by cable from the rafters at last year’s FIRST event, to the tune of Mission Impossible. This year, he told me, “I came in through the back door.”) I didn’t speak to annual judge Steve Wozniak, a founder of Apple Computer, because he wasn’t there. The reason: he will compete on Dancing With the Stars, which airs tonight. The entire crowd, though, did a shout out to him at Friday night’s opening, crying out in unison: “GOOD LUCK WOZ!” (Hodosh says they are sending in the video to the TV show, in hopes it will air tonight.)

FIRST Robotics National AnthemSome 53 teams, most, but not all (see below) from around New England, took part in the event. But that’s just a fraction of the entire competition. Last year, when you include all age groups taking part in FIRST, the organization drew more than 160,000 young people from 38 countries worldwide. What I saw was just a piece of the high-school category, which itself drew 1,500 teams last year—and should be even bigger this year.

The basic idea for the high-school event is that all teams must begin with the same core electronics and motors. They then can spend up to another $3,500, with no part costing more than $400, to fine-tune and evolve their robots, which enter into “coopetition”—both competing against and cooperating with—other teams in a series of ever-changing alliances.

This year’s game was called Lunacy. It was a basketball-type game played on a hockey rink-type floor (without the ice). As the game description goes, “Two three-team robot alliances … Next Page »

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Bob is Xconomy's founder and chairman. You can email him at [email protected] Follow @bbuderi

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