No pressure, huh? I had purchased many more index cards, did more preliminary research on each of the competitors' fight histories, and made my way back up to San Francisco on Thursday morning to prepare for the three-day event. I was greeted warmly by the competitors I had met at last month's ComBots, and indifferently by the competitors who hadn't been there. With so many more teams and robots, even with the full half a day I had to get all of my information, it was still daunting to locate, identify, and write down facts about all of the robots in attendance. On Friday, the first day of fighting, I was surprised when a couple of robots appeared that I had somehow missed the day before.
I was genuinely concerned that my voice wasn't going to hold out for the entire long weekend. At ComBots, even with scheduled breaks, my voice started getting a little raw at the end of the first day of fighting. It recovered enough so that it wasn't noticeable at the start of the second day, but it was back to being sore by the end of the tournament. And that was with just 23% of the robots that were competing at this event. I was going to be announcing many, many more fights this time around, and the only precautions I could think to take were to tell myself to speak more from my diaphragm (although once fighting got underway, I did just as much shouting during exciting moments as I did at ComBots) and to drink more water. I didn't want to take cough drops, as they can hide the pain, causing you to think you can keep pushing your voice until you wind up seriously damaging it. If you can feel the pain, it forces you to remain focused on not straining too much.
At various points throughout the weekend, a fellow named Sean (I'm not sure which spelling he uses -- sorry if I got it wrong) joined me at the announcing table. Initially, we were going to try a plan where we would alternate announcing during each minute of a fight, though in practice, it felt more natural to just talk when you felt you had something to add. Or if neither of us was saying anything. I simply could not allow there to be a single moment where somebody wasn't talking over the fight!
That first day, fighting began at noon and ran for five hours straight with no breaks -- there were more than enough robots to allow for that much fighting. Great news if you're a fan; mixed news if you're a fan who's announcing the entire time. After five straight hours, my voice was already getting a little scratchy, so when the event took a break to send the spectators home, I was glad to get up, walk around, and not talk.
If you attended the event that Friday, I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but the fighting continued after you left. It was announced as a sort of party for the competitors (a party in the sense that they got the stands to themselves). In my mind, when I heard that just the competitors would be watching the fights, I took it to mean that the audience would consist of just the other builders of fighting robots. And if the audience was entirely builders of fighting robots, I assumed that they didn't need me to explain why the robot with the lifting arm was trying to get to the side of the robot with the spinning drum, so I wandered away from my announcing duties in the interest of preserving my voice and wanting to see what other things were taking place at RoboGames.
In retrospect, it was a shortsighted move on my part. First of all, I forgot that not every competitor at RoboGames was competing in the fighting categories -- many of the people watching had spent the day over at events such as maze navigation and soccer, so they hadn't been paying attention to what was going on in the arena. Some may not have even seen live combat before -- I'm not sure. So I should have been there to tell them what was happening. Second, the combat builders themselves were so busy tending to their own machines that they may not have been familiar with every single other robot in attendance, so even though they could more readily figure out what a robot was designed to do, they still might have liked to know some of the miscellaneous facts I gathered in my Thursday interviews. And third, while I was busy looking at the other sections of the building, I myself wasn't paying attention to the tournament -- something may have happened during those hobbyweight and featherweight bouts that I would have wanted to mention before a future fight.
It's not that there wasn't announcing -- Sean and another man picked up the slack when I didn't return -- but it came off as a somewhat diva-ish action that I really do regret doing. I should have stayed there and just announced the basics (since I did need to relax my voice a little). I sincerely apologize.
As always, the trick at announcing a live event with a lot of downtime is to find ways to fill the time when the robots aren't actively fighting one another. Load-in times can be filled by giving background information on the robots and load-out times can be filled by describing what just happened in the fight, or in the case of extended load-out times or boring fights with nothing to reflect on, continuing to give background information on the robots. As I did at the ComBots Cup, I also had some emergency cards which went into the sport of robotic combat in great detail, if I really needed to fill some time. However, I didn't really feel like there was any appropriate time to use most of my emergency cards, even during the extended stopdowns -- the vibe that I got from the audience was that they were a little more familiar with robotic combat than the folks at Maker Faire, so my gut told me not to try to BS my way through describing the basic components that make up a fighting robot.
Saturday was the hardest day for everybody to fill the gaps while all of the robots were being repaired. On Friday, there were enough robots that hadn't yet been significantly damaged that fighting could go on continuously. On Sunday, the robots that had been eliminated could compete in grudge matches. But on Saturday, robots started to need more time for repairs. And because of the double elimination, none of them had really been eliminated yet, so grudge matches weren't possible. So in addition to me trying to think of things to talk about in between the scheduled breaks, the event organizers were looking for other things to put in the arena.
Which was why at one point, all of the people who had been making robot costumes out of cardboard boxes, gray spray paint, and aluminum foil got in the arena and pretended to beat each other up. I let Sean take the lead on providing commentary for that, because I'm really not good with the extreme goofball stuff that has nothing to do with robot fighting (I was similarly dumbstruck when the folks in the salmon costumes briefly ran through the arena at Maker Faire). Like most of the audience, I was just sitting there, thinking, "Huh?" -- I couldn't come up with much of anything witty to say (though I thought my comparison to performance art was pretty funny). Before the pretend melee began, Sean tried to get me to go completely over the top and act like this would be the most exciting thing ever. I'm sorry that I wasn't able to bring myself to play along.
But one time-filler that was related to robots was the world debut of robotic boxing (Roboxing) starring Jamie Hyneman and Carlo Bertocchini, the creators. Since the demonstration would begin after a break in the action, I had time to make sure I could bring a microphone into the arena to talk to the two builders about what the audience was going to see. It was the only time I left the safety and comfort of my table, chair, and index cards and actually conducted an interview in front of the audience.
I suppose I should be more in awe that I got to interview Jaime Hyneman for the Roboxing demonstration. But it really didn't sink in much for me, which I guess is fine, because that resulted in less of a chance in me locking up in front of the spectators. While I know that "MythBusters" is a very popular show, and I've seen how crowds (especially robotic combat crowds) perk up when it's mentioned, since I don't have cable, I personally have only seen about one and a half episodes of it (don't get me wrong, I enjoyed what I saw -- I simply don't have access to it on a regular basis). Therefore, the fact that I was standing next to the host of "MythBusters" didn't really impact me the way that it should have -- come to think of it, I don't think I even mentioned "MythBusters" while I was in there. In all honesty, I was more impressed that I was also interviewing Carlo Bertocchini, simply because I've seen him on TV a lot more often.
It was also hard for me to get keyed up about interviewing... well, either of the builders, because I know that my interviewing skills are terrible. I learned this from watching myself when I did some local shows for my college's campus television station -- at best, when I interview people, it comes off as slightly uncomfortable. Fortunately, unlike my college days, when I was interviewing regular people who were not used to a television environment, both Jaime and Carlo have spoken in front of audiences before, so all I really had to do was get them started and then stand back. Now that I remember it, at least one of them actually took the microphone from me, so it wasn't an interview so much as an introduction.
So anyway, robotic boxing. The object is to build slightly smaller than life-size, human-proportioned robotic pugilists that punch one another and register impacts on sensors located on specific parts of the robotic body. The human proportions are the key thing that distinguishes the robotic boxers from the more machine-like robotic combat entrants -- the rules even specify how closely the fighters have to resemble humans, and joints have to move the same way human joints would move. Besides the fact that they were obviously mechanical, the other thing that differentiated the radio-controlled robot boxers from androids was that they moved around on wheeled boxes instead of articulated legs.
These first two robot boxers each looked the same, except one was painted blue (representing the U.S.A.) and one was painted red (representing the now-defunct U.S.S.R.) with different masks on their heads. Each one had arms that took turns alternating between swinging forward and swinging backward, with boxing gloves on the hands. Jaime and Carlo started swinging the arms and tried to hit the impact sensors located in the head and where the pectoral muscles would be. At the end of one minute the robot that landed the greater number of hits (as indicated by counters installed in the robots) won.
This was the first time the new sport had ever been attempted -- Jaime and Carlo even deliberately hadn't practiced fighting the machines, so everything was brand new. And, well, after watching finely-tuned robotic killing machines dismember one another for the first half of the day, the audience wasn't feeling too patient with the never-before-attempted Roboxers. As the robots clumsily swung their arms and scored hits seemingly at random, some members of the audience actually started booing. I tried to do a little bit of damage control, explaining that this was the first time ever for the sport (I believe my words were, "You'll be able to say that you saw the first ever robotic boxing match").
They fought in one-minute intervals in a best-two-out-of-three format. In their third fight, the boxers were tied at the end of the minute, so they had to fight a fourth time. After expressing their displeasure during the first fight, the audience mostly just sat and tolerated the boxing for the remainder of the demonstration, though they did react positively the couple of times it looked like one of the boxers was about to tip the other one over (which would have signified a knockout). After the demonstration ended, I remembered to point out that back when it started in 1994, Robot Wars was incredibly tame compared to the fights of today, and since that was the first time robot boxing had ever been attempted, it would most likely evolve in the same way. Personally, I think that audiences will always prefer the blood sport of robotic combat over the more nuanced skills of robot boxing, but if you give the robots time to become more sophisticated, I can see its appeal.
The other major break in the action came in the form of medal ceremonies for the various competitions that had been going on at RoboGames over the long weekend. The medal platform was brought out in front of the arena, spectators sitting on the floor in front of the arena were shooed away, and I announced the bronze, silver, and gold recipients as David Calkins gave them their medals. I liked the medal ceremonies because I could speak calmly the entire time, preserving what little voice I had left. The audience primarily used the time to go to the restroom and leave to do anything other than watch medals be awarded. Show a little love for the people who worked their butts off to succeed at the various events, would you? Well, hopefully hearing me pronounce their robots' names over the public address system made the competitors feel good.
Eventually, Sunday afternoon rolled around and it was time for the finals. Bolstered by the evidence that I probably wasn't going to go mute, I was ready to send things out with a bang. (Having since watched the first and last fights, it's obvious that by the end of that third day, my voice was tired and raspy. But they say a raspy voice is sexy, and heaven knows there's nothing else about me that's sexy. So there's a plus.)
I wanted the double-elimination finals to collectively end in one of two ways: Either all of the fights would be won by the robots that had stayed in the winners bracket, meaning that there would be no need to wait for the robots to be repaired for a tie-breaking last fight, or all of the fights would be won by the robots coming from the losers bracket, meaning that by the time the penultimate super heavyweight fight had ended, the twenty-minute repair time for the hobbyweight robots would be over, allowing the final fights to continue without a break in the action.
Things were going well, with the robots that had remained in the winners bracket of the first four weight classes continuing their undefeated streak, putting an end to their brackets (of note was Team RioBotz from Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, who demonstrated that if they were going to go to the trouble of flying over 6,500 miles to attend this event, they were going to make it worth their while by taking home not one, but two gold medals). But then Sewer Snake had the nerve to not want to receive a second loss and be eliminated from the heavyweight competition. Both it and Last Rites took heavy damage in their fight that tied them up at one loss apiece, and to make things worse for me, the super heavyweight final ended with a win by the robot in the winners bracket in less than the three-minute fight time. So not only was I going to have to fill time while the heavyweights were being repaired, I knew that they were going to need as much time as they could get. And since I had already announced the winners of pretty much every other event at RoboGames, there was nothing else for the spectators to go see. That meant that I was going to have to talk for the remainder of the twenty minutes. Where are my index cards?
I let the audience know that they were in for a detailed history and explanation of robotic combat and began reading over every note I had. Could I kill some time by lugging over the piece of Lexan that had been damaged at the recent ComBots Cup? All right! Would I slowly list all of the sponsors again? You betcha!
As my lecture progressed, I received word from the pits that Last Rites had been damaged beyond repair, so Sewer Snake was the winner by default. An anticlimactic way to end the day, but it allowed me to shut up and the audience to stop sitting on the bleachers. I thanked them all for coming -- if they wanted to stick around and watch the medal ceremony for the robotic combat, they could; otherwise, it was time to go home. Most everybody went home.
But hopefully with fond memories of the event, enhanced by the play-by-play and competitor information provided by yours truly. I don't know how well I went over with the audience, but I do know that I had a lot of fun -- I got to be an official part of robotic combat and I got to watch all of the fights from a seat that was literally two feet away from the arena. I hope to get to do it again -- if I do, feel free to stop by and say hi. I'll gladly wave hello back, but if I don't say anything, it just means that I've lost my voice to the sport. If that happens, don't worry -- I've got a series of contingency plans at the ready. Transmitting my play-by-play in Morse code will be the most germane to robotics, but the real fun will come when I recap each fight through mime!