ORLANDO, Fla. — June 7, 2005 — IT professionals and developers attending a keynote session at Tech·Ed 2005 today got a surprise guest appearance by The Finalizer — a high-end, smart BattleBot built with Microsoft .NET technologies by ASPSOFT Inc., a Florida-based software consulting company, certified Microsoft solution developer and Microsoft Regional Director.
BattleBots, best known for their to-the-death duels on cable TV, have been billed a hit sport among geeks. Tough, remote-controlled robots armed with lethal saws, pulverizers or spears, they are built with one purpose in mind: to destroy an opposing BattleBot. At Microsoft’s biggest annual technology-education conference, The Finalizer made three appearances during a keynote address by Paul Flessner, Microsoft senior vice president for the Windows Server System Division. It even participated in two of the demos.
In addition to getting some laughs, The Finalizer showcased the power of .NET and other Microsoft technologies that make it a formidable opponent in the BattleBot ring — and a useful prototype for scenarios outside the ring. The .NET platform is one of four key investment areas highlighted Monday in the Tech·Ed keynote of Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer. To learn more about the bot’s debut and the potentials it embodies, PressPass caught up with The Finalizer at its gym.
PressPass: How did you feel being the guest of honor at the Tech·Ed keynote?
The Finalizer: I’m not programmed to feel, but I did successfully complete my assignments. All the audience members could choose to wear Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) tags, and there were RFID readers installed in selected areas of the convention center. There was a prize drawing for five Portable Media Centers, and to select the winners, five RFID attendee tags were randomly picked. I got to actually deliver the prizes on stage. That was demo No. 1. But the best part was demo No. 2, when I got to smash a network switch on a server with my steel ax. The demo illustrated server scalability and availability by having one server take over, with high-speed failover, another server’s load in the event of server failure.
First BattleBot Built with Microsoft .NET Technologies Is Tech·Ed Guest of Honor.
PressPass: Tell us a little more about yourself.
The Finalizer: I’m built like a tank — literally. I have two large tank treads, a body made of steel bars and clear Lexan plastic panels, and more weaponry than your average dumb bot. In addition to my ax, I have a lifter arm that can lift up to 40 pounds and a retractable robotic arm with a rotary saw on the end that reaches 8,000 rpm. I have a really cool-looking smart client dashboard built with Visual Studio 2005 using gauge components supplied by Toronto-based Dundas Gauge for .NET. I also have a camera on a boom that allows Jonathan and his team to see what I see — that’s Jonathan Goodyear, the president of ASPSOFT. He and his team are the ones who molded me from being a basic robot built by The Machine Lab in Los Angeles into what I am today. The video feed comes over 1.2 GH RF signals over a broadband Wi-Fi network, and the smart client on the PC side uses a Managed DirectX SDK to capture the video signals and play them on the screen. It also captures input from the Xbox controller that’s used to guide me. We don’t use a mouse. My name is actually a pun on a programming term, in case you hadn’t figured that out — but it strikes fear in the servos of other bots, too.
PressPass: What makes you different from other BattleBots?
The Finalizer: I’m the first BattleBot powered by Microsoft technologies. Typical bots work like complex versions of remote control toy cars, consisting basically of a stick controller connecting servos — electro-mechanical devices that move control surfaces according to commands from a receiver. But I have a Pocket PC Personal Digital Assistant (PDA) on board that communicates with a PC over a Wi-Fi network. On the PDA is a pre-release version of the .NET Compact Framework 2.0. One of the main reasons Jonathan and his team used .NET CF 2.0 is that it has a Serial Port class which allows them to speak natively to the serial port of my Pocket PC, which then allows them to talk directly to the servos without having to jump through any hoops. It saved them a lot of programming time. In a sense, I’m controlled over the Internet because, when my PDA is turned on, it seeks out a particular Internet Protocol address to connect up to the server to receive commands. Not to brag, but I’m years ahead of the competition.
PressPass: So now that you’ve knocked out your first server, who is your next opponent?
The Finalizer: My primary goal was to demonstrate the Microsoft technologies that set me apart. I’m living proof that developers can use the .NET Compact Framework to communicate with and power machinery — from BattleBots to industrial-type machines to control systems in cars, whether locally powered or controlled over the Internet. But I’m also serious about entering a couple of the BattleBot competitions. There are a number of weight divisions, from a half-dozen ounces on up to 200 pounds-plus. The reigning champ in the heavyweight division is a bot called BioHazard. But I think I can take him. My two 24-volt batteries push my weight up to 120 pounds, so the weigh-in should be no problem. And I’m in great shape — 45 inches long including my lifter arm, 24 inches wide, 16 inches high. In training recently, I shattered a digital answering machine, and I accidentally destroyed a $600 PDA once. And don’t let those fancy red and blue LED lights and Lexan panels I wore to the demo fool you. All that will be replaced with battle-ready steel panels before I get in the ring.
PressPass: You’re more expensive than other BattleBots, too, correct?
Finalizer: What do you expect, wise guy? I’m the luxury line of BattleBots. I cost about $28,000 total, compared to about $10,000 for your average bot. But they don’t have half the features and gauges I do, nor intelligent applications. My ax retracts automatically after striking, for example. That would have to be done manually in a conventional bot. I also have fail safes, so if I lose communication, I’m smart enough to shut myself down. I was built to showcase some intelligent business logic features that can be put into controlling a bot. That doesn’t come free.
PressPass: And if you win the BattleBot title? What next?
Finalizer: I might take early retirement. The weather here in Florida is hard to beat.