I love retro-looking robots. The old covers of Amazing Stories and other pulp novels are full of examples of both evil robots on the rampage and helpful companions on long journeys across the galaxy. I can’t put my finger on exactly what it is about clunky, humanoid-shaped robots with bucket heads, spinning gears on their chests, and pincers instead of fingers, but I just like it. I’ll take Robby the Robot over David the Android as a personal assistant any day of the week.
I’ve built quite a few robots in my day — many of them Lego robots but a few have been soldered up in my workshop — but none of them have a retro style. Most of them are wheel-based robots with no humanoid features other than maybe the eye-like ultrasonic sensors used for obstacle avoidance. I’ve pretty much accepted the fact that the robots that exist in my mind’s eye will remain there… hobbling along in my imagination as their chest lights blink random patterns of nonsense. But then I got lucky and met the team of My Robot Nation at Maker Faire a few weekends back. Now those imaginary robots have an actual chance to see the light of day.
My Robot Nation is awesome. You use your browser (must be WebGL-supported like Chrome or Firefox, but it can be turned on in Safari) to basically select the body parts of your imaginary robot and then drag and drop components such as bolts and panels and tools and other gizmos onto the body. You can color your robot and even create your own custom colors if you don’t see what you like. And finally, you can apply stamps (think of them as stickers) that provide a bit more customization. When you’re happy with your robot’s final design, you give your robot a name and select the size (from 2″ all the way up to 6″ in height) and then place your order — your design is added to the My Robot Nation robot database for the world to see. My Robot Nation allows visitors to view its large database of customer designs but does not allow anyone to place an order for other users’ designs. This means your robot is one-of-a-kind! Only you will be able to hold the actual 3D, full-color robot in your hands.
It’s really cool. Let me show you.
First, visit myrobotnation.com to start the process. Click the Make My Robot button in the center of the screen. Next, you’ll want to read over the basic instructions before you begin — after reading the instructions you’ll see a basic screen that offers up custom body parts such as head, torso, left and right arms (they can be different) and legs or treads. There’s a Randomize Robot button that will allow you to have random robots generated using a mix of all the body parts, but to make the robot really your own, you’ll want to go through each of the heads, torsos, etc. to find the ones that suit you best. I’ll tell you right now that I spent almost 30 minutes playing with different legs, arms, torso, and head. That was just to get the basic shape of the robot — I hadn’t even started with the color and stamp process yet!
Once I established the basic shape for Bruzer (the name of my robot) I selected the Parts button (represented by a small hex nut). Keep in mind that as you color and add parts that you can still go back and change basic body parts at any time. The Parts options are really amazing. There are eight different categories (they work like menus along the top of the Parts window) including Visors & Widgets, Robot Eyes, and Pipes & Circuits. Again, I probably spent about 30 to 40 minutes alone just adding small bolts to Bruzer’s shoulders, trying out different chest grilles, and tweaking the feet and head. (I ended up skipping the Robot Eyes category and instead choosing a three star gear for Bruzer’s single eye.)
Next came the color application. As I mentioned, you can create custom colors if you like, but I stuck with the basic colors. Clicking on certain key parts will apply color to only a portion of the body part. For example, clicking on Purple and then clicking on Bruzer’s legs doesn’t color the entire leg purple. It only colored the inner portions leaving the feet and knees white and ready for another color. The color selection and application tool is very accurate but keep in mind that individual body parts have areas that are linked together, so if you click on a knee for example, it will color the two knees but also the top of the legs that meet the waistline. It’s a bit hard to explain, so take a look at the next screen capture and you’ll see how the waist, knees and feet are color-locked. The inner tubes of the legs are also color-locked. Same with the inner tubes of the arms.
After getting the colors and parts all added, I next added some stamps. These are more for decoration purposes — I added a spade symbol to Bruzer’s shoulder (he’s All Infantry — Boo Yah!) and a couple of rank insignias to the other. A power meter went on his back. I added a few more but then he began to look too cluttered so I removed them. Removing parts, stamps, and colors is super-easy, so just know that up until you click the Save and Buy button, you can make any modifications that you like.
Once I finished up Bruzer’s stamps and colors, I used the Pose button to move his arms and head and waist, giving him a more active look. You use drag bars to shift his body parts and you can always click and hold on your robot to move it around to see it from all angles. When you’re happy with your robot, click the Save and Buy button, give him a name… and select a size. (I selected the 3″ version.)
Your robot is then added to the Robot Roll Call — you can view it and all the other robots using a variety of filters including Newest, Popular and Hall of Fame. If you find a robot design that you really like, you can click on the Creator Search button to see if that user has any other designs. You’ll find a handful of individuals who have done some really cool robot designs as well as get some good inspiration for your own designs.
After paying for your robot, the little fellow is off to be printed and shipped. When mine arrived, I was really impressed at how well Bruzer had been wrapped and packaged. I think the delivery guy could have thrown the package off a 10-story roof and Bruzer would have survived! My 5-year-old son was quite impressed when I pulled Bruzer out of the packaging — you might think the robot would feel light and fragile, but the robot is obviously printed as a solid (not hollow) as Bruzer has some weight to him. I’ll have to be careful with the little bits and pieces (such as bolts) that are sticking off his feet and shoulders, but all the other body parts are tough and feel made to last. And the colorization is perfect — a quick comparison to the screenshots showed me that My Robot Nation nailed the color matching.
I cannot wait to sit down with my son and help him design his own robot. I think we’ll stick with the 3″ version for now, but I’m definitely curious to see how a 6″ tall robot looks and may have to try my hand at another design in my head soon.
And guess what? With Father’s Day fast approaching, My Robot Nation has got a great deal for GeekDad readers. From now until June 24th (one week after Father’s Day), you can design your own robot and get 20% off by using the following code at checkout: GEEKFATHERSDAY
If you’ve got kids, this is a perfect way to spend an hour (or two… or three…) — get them to help and design a unique little robot for Dear Ol’ Dad. I’m going to start a thread in the GeekDad Community Forum for anyone who chooses to create a robot to upload a picture of their creation. If you can, take front and back pictures and share them with us!
Bruzer is going on my shelf where he’ll be guarding my book collection with a vengeance (and staying safely out of the way of a certain 2-year-old in my house who has an increased reach range now). He may be lonely right now, but that won’t last long… I have an idea for a Recon Specialist in the Robot Army who can keep him company.
Note: I’d like to thank Sarah and the rest of the My Robot Nation crew for letting me take a test run of the robot design tool and for expediting Bruzer’s print and shipping so he could make it to my house in time for this writeup.