Japan-born Hebocon, a battle between low-tech robots, gains global traction

by

Kyodo

A born-in-Japan competition of low-tech clunky robots is gaining traction in many countries, spreading its motto that “All failures are beautiful.”

Hebocon, as the competition is called, encourages young people to come up with their own robot creations.

In May, dozens of people gathered in San Mateo, California, for a Hebocon, which is made up of a series of tournaments. “Hebo” comes from the Japanese adjective heboi, meaning being shoddy. “Con” comes from competition.

The San Mateo event was held as part of a Maker Faire exhibition, a gathering of enthusiasts who like to make things.

The rule is as simple as sumo: The bout is decided when either of the two robots goes out of the rectangular playing area — a board 50 cm by 100 cm — or falls down.

Contest participants don’t have to be technically gifted. They make their machines by hand after they arrive at the competition site. The robots are constructed using simple mechanical toys prepared by the organizer, various basic materials and primitive tools such as scissors, glue and wooden chopsticks. Remote control systems and artificial intelligence are prohibited.

“It is a competition where crappy robots that can just barely move gather and somehow manage to engage in odd, awkward battles,” the official Hebocon website says.

During the Hebocon in San Mateo, some of the robots failed to move once the fight began. Others started walking in the wrong direction, with their back facing the adversary. The goofy moves drew laughter from onlookers and even the competitors themselves.

Adrian Choy, 28, a science museum worker from Chicago and an avid fan of Hebocon, emceed the tournaments, which drew many participants and visitors eager just to have fun.

Max Blennemann, a 12-year-old contestant, lost in the first round of the preliminary stage. Blennemann said he felt sorry to see his yellow car equipped with weapon-like objects engaged in wayward runs during the battle but happy to have made his own vehicle.

Zach Lawson, a 22-year-old engineer from Oregon, was dejected to see his animal toy featuring the Stars and Stripes pushed out of the board by a similar canine robot created by a young child.

Daiju Ishikawa, the founder of Hebocon, describes the philosophy behind the concept: “You suck at something. That potentially shows your lack of motivation and weakness. Such qualities have been considered worthless. But it is such qualities that produce human drama. The fact you suck at something can be fun and can make life more enjoyable.”

Ishikawa, 37, is an editor for the Daily Portal Z entertainment site run by Nifty Corp.

He said it is interesting to see that in many cases the Hebocon robots reflect the creators’ shortcomings and vulnerabilities.

“Hebocon is not engineering but literature,” he said.

Ishikawa said he came up with the idea of Hebocon after discovering that he found flops appealing, while most other people praise only successful products. He held the first Hebocon event in 2014 and the videos of the first round went viral. Since then, more than 25 countries and territories have hosted more than 100 Hebocon events, according to Ishikawa.

A Sweden-based academic said Hebocon can help people who aren’t technologically gifted, including those in younger generations, to cultivate their creativity.

“I think Hebocon opens up the possibility of creating machines without any previous knowledge in technology, but at the same time represents an opening for those that know to work with tech in a more creative way,” said David Cuartielles, a telecommunications engineer who lectures at Sweden’s Malmo University.

“This way of thinking is appealing to many cultures and therefore is a concept easy to export from Japan to other countries,” he said.

Cuartielles said the Murcia region in Spain is going to use Hebocon with all of its 14-year-old children to help hold a crash course in technology.

“The idea of using the competition is to build a common ground for everyone to feel equal and to encourage the kids to think creatively about technology,” he said.

Along with a grand prize for the tournament at the San Mateo event, the organizer prepared the Heboi Prize, awarding it to the competitor who received the loudest applause from the audience for the robot’s funny appearance and function. This prize went to Karen Leung, a 26-year-old engineer who created a wrestler with a feline look.

“Karen said it is a cat, but it never looks (like) a cat, which is so funny,” said Ishikawa who picked her as the winner.

“Not only her robot is shoddy but Karen herself is a terrible creator,” Ishikawa said after a grinning Leung grabbed the trophy, which she found out later was a handmade tower of empty Japanese snack boxes.