It's Paradise, Melrose-Style

RoboPuck

This was more than just a hockey tournament.

There wasn't the stickhandling of Peter Ciavaglia or the skating ability of Lane MacDonald '89. And one couldn't even see any goalie pads like the kind you'd find on Allain Roy.

No, this was more, or maybe it was less. Whatever, it was paradise, Kevan Melrose-style, where a strong bodycheck and control of the puck were all you needed to win.

Welcome to the fourth annual RoboPuck Tournament, MIT's version of the Beanpot, where 27 different robots compete in a double elimination tournament for the right to be called RoboPuck Champion of the World.

And the competition was fierce. Bertha versus Psycho. Masher versue Robo-Duck. Claws versus Lego-zilla. Death Star versus Blind.

In a first-round game, Blind managed to pin the puck against the wall, but Bertha zoomed in, pinned Blind's extended arm and the puck, and snuck a little arm in for the win.

And in exhibition action, Wonderdog, the brainchild of one of the organizers, Randy Sargent, cross-checked Wayne off its wheels to win the round.

But in the end, persistence and an agressive strategy paid off, as The Gymbol pulled out a two-game sweep over Psycho in the final round to carry off the trophy.

"Speed, be quick and hold on to the puck when you get it," said Mike Perrott, one of the four people who designed the winning robot.

Held in front of an overflow crowd of about 500 people in Building 26 at MIT, the fourth annual RoboPuck tournament was revolutionary--it was the first time that teams were competing without being tethered to computers. The controlling microprocessor chips were located on the robots, which were constructed out of Lego kits, gears, motors and sensors.

In each round, three participants entered a circular "rink," five feet in diameter, bordered by plexiglass with a puck in the middle. The goal for each robot was to be the last to touch the puck when the bell went off after 60 seconds.

The robots could find the location of the puck by sensing an infrared light emitted by it, except of course when the organizers forgot to "turn the puck on." This occurred in the first round.

Okay, so it makes no sense, but the best man...er...robot usually won. The most effective strategy was to get to the puck first and pin it against the boards, while opponents fruitlessly tried to check the winning robot off the puck and get a claw on it.

But the different strategies showed great conceptual depth. There was Shotgun, which propelled a Lego section at the puck as soon as it sensed it, managing to latch on to the prize while its other half found the nearest opponent and forechecked it into the boards. Talk about a goon.

How about Bertha, which managed to advance all the way to the semifinals with the following strategy--rush straight at the puck, miss it completely, bounce off the far wall and latch on to its goal on the second go-around. Bertha stole the puck from The Gymbol with 10 seconds remaining in the semifinals, but The Gymbol snagged the victory as the buzzer went off.

Psycho would first capture and then encircle the puck with two "arms," managing to keep most competitors away. kevan Melrose would be proud, though, as Psycho's inability to forecheck caused it to meet its Waterloo against The Gymbol. Advancing to the finals with a 3-0 record, Psycho fell short against The Gymbol, which used its speed to get to the puck first and control it for the full 60 seconds of both final matches.

Some robots chose to try and win by twirling aimlessly in circles, oblivious to the puck and everything around it, but seeming to have fun nevertheless. Lego-zilla was one of those that took this popular strategy.

Alternative Learning

RoboPuck is the culmination of a one-month mini-course at MIT, which is held between terms. The class's goal is "to provide an alternative approach to learning advanced technological ideas," according to course co coordinator Fred Martin.

"The course aims to draw upon the best aspects of the hacker ethic, the ideas that people learn most effectively when they are having fun and building things that they care about."

Twenty-seven different student groups participated in the project, which was sponsored by Microsoft Corp., Motorola, Inc., Lego Systems, Inc., and Polaroid Corp.

"It's a complement to traditional MIT courses, which focus more on theoretical ideas," Martin says.

Mardi Gras

But the magic of RoboPuck was all in the atmosphere created by the organizers, Martin and MIT junior Pankaj Oberoi. These guys really tried.

With a concession stand in one corner, an organ leading the crowd in cheers in another corner and two rinks which gave the air of the Roman Coliseum, these guys were serious.

But there was one thing missing. It just wasn't the same without a Zamboni machine.

And the crowd was rowdy. A chorus of boos lambasted the competitors when none moved from their starting spots in one round. Where else could you hear, "Check the camera. Check the camera. The autofocus is emitting infrared light and confusing the sensors."

And the response from Martin: "The sensors only respond to infrared light at 40 megahertz."

Where else could someone yell out, "Anybody got some Superglue?" and have someone pull a tube out of his front pocket as if it were a dollar bill, "Sure."

And what other arena would have periodic charts hanging on both sides, instead of championship banners? There's no NCAA championship banner hanging above the rink here, but a model of DNA.

Yes, RoboPuck was far more than the Beanpot. Much more than just a preview of Hockey Fest '90. It's something everyone must experience once--just once.

I'll never forget it. Especially Psycho.