Amateur still has his robot dreams

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 24 January, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 24 January, 2010, 12:00am

It would have been standard for many boys and girls in Hong Kong - parents nagging them to stop reading comics or watching cartoons and do something useful.

But for Arnold Wu King-lok, Japanese animation was the inspiration for a life-long passion for building electronic robots. Wu's favourite is the Juohmaru series, and it is one of his aims to build a robot based on the character. Juohmaru is a fictional model robot in a 1983 Japanese television series, Plawres Sanshiro.

What impressed Wu about the series was the main character's ability to control his robot with a notebook computer, so he vowed to build a similar prototype.

A quarter of a century has passed but the 36-year-old still has the same goal. In 2008, he set up a workshop in Kwun Tong, where he and a couple of dozen other enthusiasts gave vent to their passion.

Wu beams with pride as he displays a small army of his robots, each meticulously hand-assembled and fitted with dozens of servo motors and integrated-circuit chips connected by bundles of colourful cables. One of these, probably Wu's favourite, is imposing and menacing, with a pair of eye-like LEDs.

Wu says his hobby is fairly affordable as each figure costs a few hundred to a couple of thousand dollars to build. And the components can be reused to build new models.

'The greatest satisfaction comes more from the process of building the robot rather than the end product,' Wu said. 'You start with an abstract concept, then you design and build the circuitry, joints and body parts. After countless trials and errors, and solving one problem after another, you finally succeed. That is a very satisfying experience.'

Wu says robot-building is not a nerdy loner's pastime, and he has used it as an opportunity to build a wide social network.

Two years ago, he started the RoboDream Workshop in an industrial building in Kwun Tong, with heavy-duty drills, oscilloscopes and other equipment which enthusiasts use when they meet to assemble robots.

But he insists that his family comes first. 'Sometimes, my wife will complain. But the hobby does not affect my family life,' he said.

Wu's experiment with robotics began in 1986 when he bought an Apple IIe computer. Unlike other fledgling computer enthusiasts at the time, many of whom were busy writing programs for computer games, Wu was more interested in using his state-of-the-art machine to manipulate electronic toys.

Among his earlier projects that were exhibited at the Hong Kong Joint School Electronics and Computer Exhibition, one involved a robot arm and a device that printed the Braille alphabet for the blind from ordinary text.

At the age of nine, Wu took an illustrated book of electronic projects from a rubbish bin, and began to build gadgets from it. And in secondary school, he was chairman of an electronics club.

Wu learned metalwork and carpentry at a technical school, and is a self-employed interior designer.

Sometimes, he is able to apply the skills of his hobby to real life, like when he helped a friend build robot elves for a Christmas event in Disneyland's Small World.

And he wants to apply his robotics skills to help others, such as those with disabilities, he said.

Maily Liu, of the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology, who helps organise the Robocup Junior Hong Kong, an annual robot tournament for students of all levels, says the hobby of building robots has grown in popularity.

'Last year, there were more than 130 teams from 69 secondary and primary schools participating in the competitions,' she said. 'In the past, the robots' movements were a bit stilted, but recently, the motions have become more human-like.'