A couple days ago, a giant robot battle that had been in the making for two years happened, and, like so many things in this miserable, mosquito-infested craphole we call “reality,” it was kind of a letdown. A lot of the blame is being cast at the organizers, but, really, this is also partially on us, the people who’ve been enjoying fictional robot battles for decades: there’s no way the reality could meet our expectations.
A lot of outlets have been calling the battle “fake” because it took place over several days and was edited, but I think that’s missing the point. The problem wasn’t that there was fakery going on—the right kind of fakery would have made it far more exciting—the problem was that it was actually pretty realistic, and the reality is that piloted 16-foot-tall DIY mechanical robo-suits just aren’t as exciting to watch as you’d think.
Sure, the way the event was produced was deceptive, the announcers were sort of annoying, and there was a general sense of labored, forced excitement. There were staged ‘accidents’ and the entire first battle, between Japan’s Kuratas and the American team, Megabots’ old prototype, (renamed, dorkily, Iron Glory) was completely a setup to give the Japanese team a win, since Iron Glory was never intended to fight in the manner of the battle.
But all of the half-assed editing and attempts to inject drama into the battle are only there at all because the truth is that these types of robo-suit battles are slow.
The machines both teams built are impressive, no question. They’re non-trivial works of robotics and engineering, and they can be a fun and exciting way to get people involved in science and robotics, and engineering. But they’re much closer to advanced construction equipment than they are a Gundam suit or anything from Pacific Rim.
The reality of these machines is that they’re powerful, but make slow, plodding motions. They can pick up a car and throw it, but it’s a methodical process. Any idea that we may have had that a battle between mecha-suits like these would be like a sci-fi MMA fight was absurd even from the start, and, really, we all knew this deep down.
The slowness is partially the reality of the scale and type of equipment used, and partially because there’s human pilots inside those machines that nobody wants to see get hurt.
The biggest problem with the Robot Battle was one of managing expectations. They should have done it live, and just let the machines do what they could do, however they do it. It would have been a slow sort of fight, but it still could have been engaging, and instead of the embarassing over-excited announcing and staged drama, the physics of how this all worked could have been explained in an entertaining way.
To make this work well in the future, and to make it more exciting, I think one key thing needs to happen: get rid of the people.
The pilots inside the giant suits are just a liability; the controlling of the suits could be done remotely, with VR headsets and radio-frequency controls, which would free all of the safety concerns from having massive machines pummel one another.
Once we take the pilot’s safety out of the equation, a lot more exciting and stupid and fun-to-watch options open up. Two giant, remotely controlled robots could face off, and instead of relying on slow, hydraulic motions, a fist could be thrown powered by small solid-fuel rockets, for example.
You know who did this sort of thing well, and has done it for decades? Survival Research Laboratories. SRL has been doing dangerous, destructive shows with unpiloted, remotely operated machines for years, and the events they put on are exciting and more than a little terrifying.
SRL manages to capture the visceral fear we feel when we see a powerful machine that could be out of control, and a little of that would go a long way for future Robot Battles.
Once the operators are a safe distance away, we can have battles of massive machines that really go nuts on one another, with cutting tools and showers of sparks and large, room-shaking impacts as one mechanical beast brings down another.
This may sound a lot like the types of bot-fight competitions and TV shows we’ve seen already, but there could be rules set up to make it into something new and novel. The robots could have to be a minimum size, for example, and perhaps would need to be roughly humanoid-shaped, so that the way the pilot moves and fights is directly translated to the robot’s motion, forcing the pilot to learn some technique and not just rely on the equipment.
There’s potential here; people will watch two massive robots fighting. But what this first real attempt has proven to us, if anything, is that it’s better to be honest and earnest with what the fight is, and what the machines can do, that the internet is very hard to fool, and that this can be a lot more if we extract the moist, fragile people from out of these machines.
I hope they give this another go. And I hope they both play it a bit safer by moving the people out of the machines, and play it much less safe by really watching how SRL did their terrifying and wonderful shows.