GEAR HEADS by Brad Stone


The Turbulent Rise of Robotic Sports
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What happened to a former Next Big Thing is the topic of some entertaining reportage by Newsweek Silicon Valley correspondent Stone, who elucidates the interactions of business and art, of men and machines.

Not long ago, an animatronics maven from Industrial Light and Magic experienced an epiphany: How about dueling robots? There were at the time high-minded, mildly competitive engineering challenges at MIT and elsewhere. But robots designed to destroy each other was different. The idea of battling “bots” was eagerly adopted by clever nerds, garage mechanics, and jazzed gearheads, and in 1994, an arena in the Bay Area was invaded by Meccano sets gone mad. The machines sported flippers and flame-throwers, probes, prongs, spikes, and chainsaws as well as pistons, gears, treads, tires, and elaborate electronic circuitry. Sparks, smoke, and especially deafening noise characterized the affair. It was more than a hobby. The commotion was called a sport, perhaps even art. Inevitably, the first financial backer and the originating artist parted ways. Television spotted the possibilities of the destructive machinery, and on cable former Baywatch babes elbowed out the robobuilders. In the destruction, British TV, MTV, and toy makers saw the future. Proprietorship was disputed. Lawsuit followed lawsuit, and the loyalties of the tinkerers were tested. The robot wars became tedious legal wars. And so the glory days may be past, at least for the first generation. But the bots are loose and roaming and won’t be tamed. In lots of ways, Stone’s report may be emblematic of our civilization. His admonitory tale is strong on descriptions of the machines and the combat; of even more interest are the people he candidly describes, from the young enthusiast who had to be placed in a psych ward to the Bruce Wayne–like rich guy who tried to save the day.

An out-of-the-ordinary account of pop culture. (Illustrations, not seen)

Pub Date: March 1st, 2003
ISBN: 0-7432-2951-7
Page count: 304pp
Publisher: Simon & Schuster
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 15th, 2003


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