Why it works is a monthly column taking a close look at some of the most interesting technology around, that takes a look at the smaller details to find out not just how your favourite tech works, but why.
When the robot apocalypse comes, it’ll be with a whimper rather than a bang. This will mostly be the fault of Reach Robotics, who taught their MekaMon robot how to win humans over with an adorable little wave.
The MekaMon is an augmented reality (AR) combat robot that’s designed to feel like a video game character transposed to the real world – the real-world character in an AR bullet hell shooter. For a gamer, the appeal is obvious. For everyone else, the appeal of the slightly intimidating robotic spider is perhaps a little harder to quantify.
But boot up the MekaMon for the first time, and the little spider-bot throws out an adorable wave and hooks you in.
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We spoke to Tabitha Baker, the community manager for creators Reach Robotics, about the bot’s iconic wave, and how it inspired the MekaMon’s personality.
“We were solving a problem originally,” Baker said, of the wave’s inception. “In the office, we had tons of these robots kicking around, and you weren’t always sure which one you were connecting to, until someone yelled because you were stomping across their keyboard.”
The answer, Baker said, was an animation that could say “Hello! You’ve been successful, I’m here now!” This could help the developers by providing a physical sign that the connection was successful and they could start playing around.
A wave was chosen because it’s uniquely human. “When we wave as humans, we use it to show that we want to get someone’s attention,” Baker explains. “This is replicated by the robot. It’s kind of in alignment with what we do as people: it wants your attention, so it’s waving. That’s something instantly recognisable, and so it’s something that people can understand.”
This wave became, in addition to some other smart tweaks, a key part of the MekaMon’s identity. The wave is often the first step in showing nervous punters that this the robot is more than just a piece of hardware, whether that’s when they see it at an event for the first time or they’re unpacking it at home. As the first part of any interaction with the robot, it immediately injects some characterisation and humanity to the robot.
Baker credits the character engineer and animator with giving the MekaMon a “cheeky” charm inbuilt to give it its own personality, and this comes across in every movement. Remove one of the armour plates from the MekaMon and it’ll show annoyance, equip a new weapon or armour plate by slotting it onto the robot and it’ll dance around happily. There’s a bizarre sort of animal grace to its loping strides and weird form that help it feel relatable.
“It’s weird to be talking about a robot spider as being relatable, but it was designed to be a video game character in real life, and making it relatable builds up a connection with the user.”
So, the wave and the associated personality that have grown out of it can go a long way to stopping people running in terror every time they see a MekaMon, but it’s also key to the product’s success.
“I think the personality is one of the reasons that people hit the first stage of interest in the product,” Baker says. “It’s the thing that draws people in, because while you can explain AR gaming to most 20 year olds, explaining AR gaming to 50 year old parents who are just thinking about getting it for their kids is a harder sell. They can’t be impressed in the same way.”
“Add the fluid movement, cute factor and the novelty of the fact that it’s seen as part of some sci-fi vision of the future and we’re actually taking the novelty of the sci-fi dream and making something deeper and richer, with a personality that people can identify with.”
Baker admits that she’s probably seen the wave more times than she could ever remember from working in the office and showing it off around the world, but the most memorable part for her is that, while adults will rarely wave back, children always wave back, no matter what.
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Sure, the wave might just be a way to humanise our future robot overlords, but it’s hard not to appreciate how much a small animation adds to the entire product. Robots as a novelty toy isn’t a new idea — remember the Sony AIBO? — but making it feel like a playful pet, even as you pair it with your phone for some AR blasting action, is a smart move that sets it ahead of the rest.
I, for one, welcome our new robotic overlord.
What do you think of the MekaMon, cute or creepy? Let us know on Twitter at @TrustedReviews, and keep your eyes peeled for another Why It Works, soon.