Long- Awaited US-Japan Giant Robot Showdown About to Begin New Entertainment Envisioned by Two Americans
The Challenge from the US
Become a pilot and control a big robot. Many people who have grown up with Japanese robot anime culture have had that dream at least once—and it’s the same dream around the world.
Two men from the US released a video in June 2015. Wearing aviator sunglasses with US flags draped over their shoulders, the two are shown marching through their workshop accompanied by the music of “Stars and Stripes Forever,” the national march of the US. They had developed a giant robot weighing 5.4 tons that a person can ride and control. With a device that shoots paintballs at a speed of 160 km/h, it truly looks like a dream machine.
Suidobashi Heavy Industry in Japan’s Yamanashi Prefecture, however, had preceded them in creating a giant robot. Its team had produced Kuratas, the world’s first rideable giant robot.
In the video, the US team said, “Suidobashi, we have a giant robot. You have a giant robot. You know what needs to happen? We challenge you to a duel.” This was an official challenge for the robots to fight and see which is stronger: a battle for prestige between Japan, which has fascinated the world with a variety of robot anime such as the Gundam Series and Mazinger Z, and the US, a powerhouse for entertainment.
The video has been viewed more than 7 million times and has become a topic of conversation.
About one and a half years later, the long-awaited showdown of the century is finally about to begin. The two men who appeared in the video, MegaBots Inc. co-founders Gui Cavalcanti and Matt Oehrlein, share their thoughts about the upcoming duel.
Yearning for Mech Warrior
Gui: When I was in middle school, I started playing the war simulation game BattleTech, which is based on a Japanese anime called Robotech. It was originally a table-top RPG [role-playing game] that became a video game called MechWarrior—and that’s the origin of most of the ideas for this duel. That’s why I started liking this kind of science fiction.
In high school, I was on a team called First Robotics. We built robots every year for competitions, totally four robots over the period. Then I went to engineering school and studied robotics and engineering. My specialty was mechanical engineering. I then worked for a company called Boston Dynamics, a company that makes big robots. I worked on Big Dog, a famous one. I started my own fabrication space, a shop where members get access to equipment—sort of similar to a gym membership—and then the idea of MegaBots came up.
Interviewer: You mentioned that you got started with board games, but were you influenced by robot anime?
Gui: The board game really started it for me. From there, I watched Gundam and other TV shows such as Power Rangers. I loved all of them. Our robot concept art is done by the lead concept artist of the RPG MechWarrior game.
Meanwhile, Matt says, “I was a bit of a nerd and played a lot of video games,” adding that he “mostly played computer games rather than console games.” Although he was interested in computer engineering and had been building his own computers since he was in high school, he ended up majoring in electrical engineering at college.
Matt: When I was a child, I played a lot with Lego and that kind of stuff. I made cars and rubber-band guns. In college I learned how to program controllers and started making little things with motors and lights—little cars that could be driven around. I took a control systems class and learned how to give intelligence to a system. I started interning in a research and development lab, and then moved to Detroit and started a maker space.
The two met each other at Boston Dynamics, where Gui was working.
Gui: Matt came to Boston to interview at Boston Dynamics and we went out to dinner. I’m more focused on mechanical engineering and he’s more focused on electrical engineering and controls. We realized that we had overlapping skill sets and could work together.
Matt: I was more interested in starting a company, and when we met we realized we had complimentary skill sets. We realized we could be a good team and could build something cool together. We thought building giant robots sounded great, and then had to figure out how to make money and how it would look.
Gui wanted to make giant robots, and which led to them launching MegaBots.
Since starting the company, the two have been a great team, successfully getting the work done. For the creation of their first generation Mark 1 robot, they handled their own engineering and design. Matt worked on the electrical system.
Gui: Matt’s very talented and we overlap in business as well as in engineering, so it’s been a great partnership.
Matt: We get along great and share a similar sense of humor. I think we’re a great team. He’s more of a visionary, and loves coming up with ideas. I’m more into the operations and executions side, looking at the people we should hire and on which video platforms we should launch. We have complimentary skill sets not only in engineering but also in business as well.
After establishing the company, they solicited funding from investors. Once Matt and Gui received sponsorship, they started work on creating the Mark 2.
Gui: We began creating the Mark 2 at the beginning of 2015 and completed it in May that same year. The last month and half involved working 18-hour days and no weekends off. Every day we would get up at 7am, go to work, come home and pass out at 1am.
After the Mark 2 was finished, they decided to challenge Suidobashi Heavy Industry to a duel.
Gui: One day, we wondered what we would do with the giant robot once it was built. We wanted to see robots fight in person; it wasn’t enough for us simply to build one. We wanted to build the robot to see if building it was possible—and then see where it went from there. Once we’d built one, we wanted more but fighting ourselves has no story! So we looked around, found another amazing robot, and thought they should fight each other.
Suidobashi Heavy Industry received the duel challenge from MegaBots. Its robot, Kuratas, was completed in 2012 by designer and blacksmith Kogoro Kurata. It has a height of 4 meters, weighs about 4 tons, and is equipped with weapons such as twin BB Gatling guns. It also has an automatic alignment function that will not let its prey get away once it has been targeted. Suidobashi Heavy Industry was started as a project for the mass production of Kuratas.
Amazingly, Kuratas is even on sale on the Amazon online site for 120 million yen. Although it’s unclear if anyone has purchased it, its creation is sure to excite robot anime fans in Japan and abroad.
A few days after the video was released by MegaBots, Suidobashi Heavy Industry released its own video in response. In the video, founder Kogoro said, “You guys should make your robot look a little cooler,” and “American culture is all about just putting guns on something big. That’s so typically American. Giant robots are Japanese culture, right? I don’t want to see us lose this concept to someone overseas.”
Kogoro provoked MegaBots by confidently declaring, “OK, I accept your challenge. Bring it on.” He added this would be on the condition of having a melee, during which the robots would directly fight each other.
The MegaBots team has nothing but admiration for Kuratas and Suidobashi Heavy Industry. When Gui first saw Kuratas, he recalls that, “It was a dream, like it was finally happening. I was very impressed.”
Gui: It’s funny, Matt and I both feel that Kuratas is prettier—it’s more finished and beautiful. We were jealous of the look of Kuratas.
Matt: I love what Suidobashi does. They have an amazing art style and I love the attention to detail on the robot. It’s a truly beautiful robot and the way they present themselves is very polished. Their homepage is amazing. I think anyone who wants to build giant robots is great. Suidobashi Heavy Industry is giving shape to the dreams of people who have been longing for giant robots. I love that they create this image, saying on the website that they produce heavy mech suits. I really like it. I think there’s an interesting difference in that MegaBots is focused on making a business model around giant robots and being an entertainment company.
MegaBots is responding to Kuratas by developing the new Mark 3 in preparation for the duel.
Gui: The new MegaBots Mark 3 model is much more graceful than the Mark 2, and more complex with more than 2000 wires. It’s 16 feet tall and about 15 feet wide. It’s much heavier, and has a 350 horsepower engine.
In contrast to the futuristic design of Kuratas, Matt explains that, “We’re not really trying to create beautiful robots; ours are more like monsters. They’re dirty, loud and heavily armed robots.”
MegaBots’ robots are intentionally designed to look old at first glance, with paint that gives off a rusty finish. Expectations for the upcoming duel are building as preparations for their strategy are ongoing.
Aiming to be the next Walt Disney
The MegaBots team is looking far beyond this battle. Challenging Kuratas to a duel is just the groundwork for spectacular plans to follow.
With his previous experience in business, Matt notes that, “It’s not just that I want to manage cash flow and make the shareholders happy, I also want to create a business and brand that means something to people.”
Matt: I want to be the next Walt Disney. I’d like to change entertainment in a meaningful way. It goes beyond just building one giant robot; it’s the opportunity to inspire people and change their perception of what can be done.
Matt’s desire is to use robots to bring about a revolution in entertainment, and inspire children watching to become scientists and engineers through that entertainment.
Matt: Giant robots are totally cool, but what drew me in was how to make everything bigger than just one giant robot. I was interested in how we could use this creation to impact the world.
Envisioning a robot league to usher in a new style of entertainment
Matt and Gui are aiming to launch a sports league, allowing people to watch even more advanced giant robots fight each other.
Matt: We decided to challenge Kuratas because we wanted to start a giant robot sports league, but you need to show people what it might look like to have two robots fight. We knew about Kuratas, and so it had been in our brains that our robot could fight it. But it’s not about just building and fighting, it’s about teams, which give people a reason to care, to cheer. It gives you more of a picture as to what a sport league would be like. If we could make a video about the sports league, it would be a way to show people what a fight looks like, and who wants to see more. It’s hard to communicate a vision but easier to show it.
The US team took advantage of crowdfunding to raise funding for an upgrade of their robot to Mark 3. They had done this before when producing the Mark 2, but interest was low and many people told them that there was no way they would be able to make the robot. However, the Mark 3 is to be used to fight against Japan’s giant robot, resulting in MegaBots drawing one financial donation after another.
“Inspiring a generation of people to go and do what they dream about.”
Matt says, “What I want to emphasize is that MegaBots is trying to revolutionize live entertainment. We’re a company focused on making science fiction into reality.”
Matt: Giant robots are just the starting point. What really excites me is impacting culture and history in a meaningful way and inspiring a generation of people to go and do what they dream about. Maybe some will be scientists; I think that’s great. It’s about inspiring people and changing the world.
Finally, a message to fans
Gui: First, we’re sorry that organizing the showdown has not happened faster, but we want it to be the best show it can be to meet expectations of science fiction coming to life. We’re making the best robots we can. The US got its interest in giant robots from Japan, which is why we’re building a giant robot. In the near future, that robot will return to Japan, the land where this culture started. We love this culture and are very respectful and appreciative of it. This is our way of showing that.
Matt: If you’re a fan of MegaBots, we appreciate your support. Whether you’re cheering us or our rivals, Suidobashi, as long as we can have an entertaining and destructive fight, everybody will win!
text by Haruka Ono , photos by Protechnology JAPAN