Robotics is child's play

Chris Lau

Imagining toys that come to life, like the Toy Story films, inspired a world champion team of dancing robot designers

Chris Lau |

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The Toy Story-themed Robot designs of (Front Row) Ma Ka-ming, Sze Siu-fung, Lui Chun-kit and Howard Yeung Yat-ho, and (Back Row) Ng Chi-kit, Ken Chan Kwok-ho, Stella Yuen Mei-sen and Wong Pui-kwan, won two world robot dance titles at this summer's RoboCup 2012 Championship in Mexico.
The hit film Toy Story, and its two sequels - in which toys come to life - inspired a team of inventive Hong Kong robot enthusiasts to create sophisticated dancing robots that won two world titles.

The six boys, Ma Ka-ming, Sze Siu-fung, Lui Chun-kit, Howard Yeung Yat-ho, Ng Chi-kit and Ken Chan Kwok-ho, and two girls, Stella Yuen Mei-sen and Wong Pui-kwan, comprised the robotics team at Buddhist Ho Nam Kam College, in Kowloon, who won both the individual and superteam dance categories at this summer's Robo Cup 2012 Championship, in Mexico City. "We were so excited when we heard we'd won," says team captain Howard. "We danced in celebration with local Mexicans."

The Form Two to Form Five students, who beat 1,000 other international teams, based their cutting-edge design on the storyline and characters of Toy Story - where toys are transformed once the owner sleeps or leaves the room.

They also made their robots look like the film's stars, space ranger Buzz Lightyear and cowboy Woody.

Howard and teammate Ken said they spent more than a year preparing for the event, such as building and programming robots, and creating a dance. Their robots danced to a medley of hits, including a 1950s song, (We're Gonna) Rock Around The Clock.

Tim Li Chi-wing, the teacher in charge of the team, says the inspired idea to use the heartwarming Toy Story storyline and characters was part of the secret of their success. "Many judges said they had never seen such a routine before," he says.

Using toys - something that everyone has played with as a child - made it easy for judges to understand their idea, Li says. Using the faces of Toy Story characters also helped the judges relate to their robots because Woody and Buzz remain cross-cultural icons, Li says.

The team split responsibilities between them, with the girls taking care of the aesthetics and creative side of the robot designs and the boys focusing on assembling the designs and the programming.

However, their impressive display did not come without a few problems. Many team members struggled with altitude sickness; the lowest point in Mexico City is twice the height of Hong Kong's tallest mountain, Tai Mo Shan.

Some students experienced mild symptoms, such as chest pains and headaches, but all of them overcame the discomfort to stay focused on the competition.

As a Spanish-speaking host nation, Mexico also posed a language barrier because few of the people helping to run the competition spoke much English. This problem was even greater when the Hong Kong team worked alongside their Mexican and Slovakian counterparts in the superteam dance event. "We used very simple English and sign language to help us communicate," Howard says.

Yet they managed very well, because their joint efforts - spurred on by Hong Kong wizardry, Mexican home-team advantage, and a thrilling Slovakian-inspired storyline - won the event.

Most of the Hong Kong students expect to go on to university within two years. But Li, who has taught many of the team members for four years, says he hopes they continue their hobby - and devise even more innovative and practical robotic ideas in future... So, maybe there's still time for one more dance?