A new robot revolution is threatening to take over the world — as long as the glue and tape hold together long enough.

Hebocon, a robot sumo contest “for the technically ungifted,” bills itself as “a competition where crappy robots that can barely move gather and somehow manage to engage in odd, awkward movements.”

Hebocon wears its shambolic aesthetic as a badge of honor, urging competitors to build crude, primitive robots. Penalties are imposed for high-tech features and the spirit of technological compromise and surrender to limitations is encouraged.

The “hebo” of Hebocon, meaning “shoddy” in Japanese, is a deliberate alternative to the slick expertise on display at Robocon, an annual robot engineering competition for students organized by broadcaster NHK.

Hebocon founder Daiju Ishikawa started out with the intention of holding a one-off event in July last year, but interest snowballed and contests have since been held in over 20 countries, including the United States, Indonesia and Singapore.

The event was also chosen as the jury selection of the entertainment division in last year’s Japan Media Arts Festival organized by the Cultural Affairs Agency.

“A well-made robot doesn’t really express the nature of the person who made it,” Ishikawa told The Japan Times. “If you look at a badly made robot, where the maker has had to give up or compromise on bits of it, you get a glimpse of the maker’s personality.

“My favorite robot was one that looked terrible and didn’t even use electricity, but it had lots of functions. Water came out of the head and a paper party toy came out of the mouth. It wasn’t well made but a lot of ideas had gone into it. You could see the maker’s character just by looking at it.”

Ishikawa displayed a selection of Hebocon robots at Tokyo Design Week, an exhibition for Japanese creators that ran from Oct. 24 to Tuesday, and also held two demonstration tournaments there.

The robots on show included Takoyama Deluxe, a red plastic ball cut in half and stuck onto a radio-controlled car, then adorned with spinning plastic toys — which soon fell off — all decorated to look like an octopus.

Also featured was V8, a robot made of eight plastic frogs with pump-action jumping legs lined up inside a cardboard frame. Unfortunately, the maker neglected to consider how V8 would move forward.

“It feels like a gateway into the world of building robots, and it takes a lot of the fear away,” said Tokyo Design Week visitor Nikolai Boyce, from London. “It makes it more fun, and you can get your head around it. I don’t think I’d be able to build a robot but I think I’d be able to build one of these.”

“What’s really intriguing is that it gives you a different idea of what a robot is,” said his American friend Ryan Neil. “Because when I started looking at these things, I thought: ‘That’s not my image of what a robot is. A robot is much more complex.’ I guess even a hand puppet could be a robot. What’s the definition of a robot? I have no idea.”

Ishikawa came up with the idea for Hebocon through his work as an editor and writer at Daily Portal Z, a website dedicated to finding humor in the everyday and the mundane.

“We have a lot of articles about making things,” he explained. “But there are also articles about people who have tried to make things and failed, and that’s interesting from an editor’s point of view.

“I started thinking that I wanted to read more about projects that didn’t work out. People only get to hear about things that have been successfully completed. I wanted people to enjoy things that have failed, and that’s how Hebocon started.”

Ishikawa believes that a do-it-yourself ethos, without fear of failure, is the key to Hebocon’s ramshackle charm.

“I think Robocon is a good event and I’m not rebelling against it,” he said. “But there is more than one way to enjoy making something. You don’t have to be technically skilled and make something great. You can fail and make something rubbish and still enjoy it. That’s what I want to get across.

“Nobody thinks they can make a robot, but if you try, then you realize you can make something that moves. I want people to realize that they can make things.”

Hebocon is encouraging more people to stage events, and will provide a rule book and logo with no license fee for anyone who is interested.

Information can be found on Hebocon’s official Facebook page, but Ishikawa is also urging people to take the initiative themselves.

“In the future I’d like it to get bigger, but not in terms of big events with lots of teams,” he said. “I’d like kids to get together in their neighborhood and do it themselves. I’d like it to become a normal thing for normal kids to do.”

In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.