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Programmable robots at $100 a pop

Programmable robots at $100 a pop

Posting in Technology

HONG KONG -- Turning a hobby into a robotics toy startup.

HONG KONG — Robert Lam is perfecting a toy that he hopes will help bring robotics to the masses.

Lam, 36, said programmable robots generally go for $1,000 in Hong Kong, and his will only cost around $100. “So one-tenth of the cost. That way ordinary people can play around with robots,” he said. “Right now, very few people can afford them.”

He is creating a small robot, called Wahoo, which will be programmable by smartphone. While most robots controlled by smartphones move back and forth on wheels, Lam’s is a biped robot, meaning that it walks on two legs.

“Making a robot walk with legs is very difficult, even for big robots. It’s hard to program it to walk very smoothly,” he said.

Lam will keep manufacturing costs low by investing in a small 3D printer. The device, which spits out plastic parts instead of documents, is being sold by another local inventor for $350.

After Wahoo’s prototype is finalized in March, Lam also plans to use “crowd funding” to raise money for his project. Crowd funding sites allow investors to provide startups with small amounts of money, in exchange for first dibs and discounts.

Lam, who formally worked in IT in the financial industry, became interested in robotics two years ago after buying a Lego Mindstorm toy. He then moved on to a pricier robot made by Korean company Robotis and programmed it to do kung-fu moves. That’s when things started to get really interesting.

A video of his kung-fu fighting robot caught the attention of Robotis officials, who invited him to Korea to take part in a robot kung-fu competition. His robot lost; the hobby stuck.

But he realized that in Korea and Japan, robot parts are comparatively cheap. “In fact, the kids in Korea have lots of robots,” he said.

Accessible robotic toys aren’t his ultimate goal. “I would really love to make robots more sophisticated and start a robot research-and-development company that can make robots to help people,” he said. “I hope this toy can fund me into doing something bigger and change people’s lives.”

Photo: Robert Lam

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Vanessa Ko

Correspondent (Hong Kong)

Vanessa Ko has written for TIME, South China Morning Post and Phnom Penh Post. She holds degrees from Northwestern University and the University of Hong Kong. She is based in Hong Kong, China. Follow her on Twitter. Disclosure