Silicon Valley Watcher - Former FT journalist Tom Foremski reporting from the intersection of technology and media

Father-Daughter Software Engineers Compete In Robot Cage Fights

Posted by Tom Foremski - February 27, 2013

RobotWar 1

By Intel Free Press

The contestants competing in "Robot Combat League," the new Syfy reality series featuring 8-foot-tall, 1,000-pound robots doing battle in an arena, include a father-daughter duo confident that their shared software engineering background gives them a competitive edge.

They are up against formidable opponents: a professional MMA fighter, a NASA robotics engineer, an Olympic athlete, and a Mattel toy engineer

 

"Being engineers helped us strategize because we both had a technical understanding of what was going on and we could communicate about it at a technical level," said Amber Shinsel, an Intel software engineer.

Amber and her father, Dave Shinsel, who is also an Intel software engineer, comprise one of 12 teams competing in a series of robot bouts on the program, which premieres Tuesday and is hosted by WWE star Chris Jericho. The top team takes home $100,000 in cash.

RobotWar 2

 Photos courtesy of Syfy.

Each team is assigned a robot for the duration of the series. One contestant, the "robo tech," controls the legs and leads repairs between fight rounds while the "robo-jockey" dons a so-called exo-suit that translates their upper body motions and throws punches. Dave handled the tech role and Amber the jockey duty while piloting their robot named Crash.

"It was amazing that you could have someone Amber's size fighting against a professional athlete who is twice her size," said Dave. "She could hold her own because the robots were an equalizer and it became more about the mind than about physical strength."

Robot Tech vs. Hollywood Glitz

The Shinsels are engineers in the Intel Software and Services Group and based in Hillsboro, Ore. Dave has been with the company 19 years and manages the Intel Graphics Performance Analyzers team. Amber, a former Intel intern, joined the company in 2011 and works in software pathfinding developing proof of concepts for software uses.

As engineers, it's no surprise they were attracted to the technology more than the glamour of appearing on a television show. Each came away from the experience impressed by the robots on the show, which were developed by Mark Setrakian, who previously built animatronics for films such as "Hellboy" and "Men in Black."

"When you think about robot technology, it's usually robots in the lab," said Dave. "To take that and put it in the ring and have it fight with another robot, that's a whole different level of reliability and robustness."

As the jockey, Amber was concerned about how quickly the robots would be able to translate her movements in the exo-suit and feared delays in reaction time, but her apprehension proved to be unfounded.

"The latency was fantastic," she said. "I was really worried that I'd get up there and there would be 3-second latency. Whatever latency there was, it was unnoticeable. It was very fast."

Though this was their first foray into television and combat, robots are familiar to the Shinsels. Dave has been building his own robots for years as a hobby, and in 2010 was named a "Backyard Genius" by Popular Mechanics for building Loki, a 4-foot-tall robot named for the Norse god of mischief, because as Shinsel says, "robots are very unpredictable." Loki talks, picks things up and responds to voice commands.

"One of the downsides of being in management is they don't let you write code anymore," he said. "For me to stay sharp, I needed to find a way to keep my skill set up so I started building robots on the side."

As with the robots her father builds, Amber noted that there was also a learning curve with the robots on the show, which were being used for the first time. She said there were a lot of robot clinches in the show's early bouts as the contestants learned to master the controls and the robots were fine-tuned.

"One of the things we knew as engineers going into this is that nothing goes as you expect," she said. "Technology never works how you expect it to the first 10 times."

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