tedium.com wrote an interesting piece the other day about the robots of the 1980s. Writer John Ohno states:
From the mid-1970s to the early 1980s, the home computer market went from a single half-broken $400 kit that shipped months late to an economic powerhouse and a major cultural presence, mostly on the backs of enthusiastic hobbyists willing to pay a great deal of money for extremely impractical and limited machines. This is the story of a time when important figures in that industry expected history to repeat itself, and were wrong.
First is the Arctec Gemini, a life-size robot that could self-navigate, self-charge, and included an advanced operating system for its time, it had a lot more in common with an Amazon Echo than a robot in an old sci-fi film. It spoke and took voice commands. It was self-charging, and retained a map of your home, a feature introduced into the Roomba line in 2015. Gemini could sing with synthesized piano accompaniment, recite poetry, and connect to early online services like CompuServe. A fully-loaded Gemini also came with BASIC and assembly language support.
Arctec formed in 1983 and built third party add-ons for Heathkit’s HERO robot. The 1982 to 1995 HERO was popular as an educational robot. Where the Gemini was user friendly, with speech input and BASIC support, the HERO was daunting: while it had a speech synthesizer, the primary means of input was a keypad, and the only display was a six-character seven-segment display!
According to Gemini engineer Michael Fowler, founder Jack Lewis anticipated that the company needed to sell 300 Geminis in its first year at a rate of $8,995 just to break even. “When it didn’t look like we would get anywhere near that, we lowered the price to $6,995,” he noted
The total number of assembled Gemini units sold, in the end, was only about sixty, compared with 800 RB5Xs, 120 TOPO Is (of 650 manufactured), and a whopping 14,000 Heathkit HERO-1s. The Gemini didn’t find its place in the home, as hoped. After financial difficulties, Arctec was shut down by its parent company late in 1986.
Next is Androbot. Nolan Bushnell, founder of Atari, summarized the utility of robots as: “Fun sells.”
Bushnell, Chuck E. Cheese already behind him, had formed what we would now call a startup incubator, and was at the conference to promote one of its early graduates, Androbot. Androbot had one project—TOPO—a squat robot resembling a cartoon ghost, which had no on-board computer and instead was remote controlled over radio from a nearby Apple II. Bushnell was betting a lot on the idea that utility didn’t matter: TOPO didn’t just lack the advanced features of the Gemini and the arm of the HERO—it didn’t even come with bump sensors. It was a remote-controlled chassis with a speech synthesizer.
Bushnell estimated $25M (US) in sales for 1984, to include sales of a luxury model of the TOPO called B.O.B. The company went out of business before B.O.B. came to market. The company was on its last legs, having missed deadlines, delivered faulty products, and lost important staff. Androbot represented the economy end of the personal robot market, and perhaps had B.O.B. and the other mid-range machines (comparable in price and capability with the HERO) shipped, it would have made the industry more sustainable.
And the best quote from the era:
But when people asked us ‘What can it do?’ and we would list its capabilities, they would always scoff. They wanted a something that could wash dishes and clothes, clean the house, and wash windows.”
Adafruit loves Robots and wants you to #MakeRobotFriend with Crickit, the Creative Robotics & Interactive Construction Kit. It’s an add-on to our popular Circuit Playground Express that lets you code using CircuitPython, MakeCode, Arduino, etc. to make robotics, arts, crafts, audio animatronics, sensors, agriculture/robot farming, physical computing, kinetic sculptures, science experiments, telescope control and much, much more!
Did you have a robot in the 1980s? Let us know your remembrances in the comments below!