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'BattleBots' is wrestling for robots

Sunday, August 27, 2000

By Rob Owen, Post-Gazette TV Editor

I have no use for "WWF Smackdown!" I don't watch boxing matches on HBO. But I have to admit, I was entranced by the wanton robot destruction on Comedy Central's "BattleBots." There's just something about watching a spinning robot slice the wheels out from under its competitor that makes me want to stand up and cheer.

Robot competitions aren't new to the United States, but Comedy Central gives this "sport" its biggest exposure yet. And the resulting robotic mayhem is as funny as it is amazingly destructive.

Color commentator Bil Dwyer and play-by-play announcer Sean Salisbury call the action as robots with names like Mauler and Nightmare enter the arena (called a BattleBox) to bash one another to bits. Though the broadcast team plays it as if they were calling a real sporting event, "BattleBots" is not meant to be taken seriously. How can it when an announcer segues to a commercial break, saying, "They're going to beat the crap out of each other for the entertainment pleasure of all of us, right after this."

 
  TV REVIEW

"BattleBots"

When: 10:30 p.m. Wednesday on Comedy Central.

Hosts: Bill Dwyer, Sean Salisbury

   
 

Three rounds are held in the series premiere, with a tuxedo-wearing announcer introducing the robots to the cheering crowd by giving their weight (53 to 210 pounds in Wednesday's premiere), the name of their builder and where the builder hails from.

"BattleBots" sometimes includes segments on the people who build these remote controlled robots, and they're the geeks you'd expect them to be. The creator of the robot named Mauler bills himself as the "supreme commander" and calls his sons "generals."

Not only do the robots have to fight one another, they also have to dodge random buzz saws that pop out of the BattleBox floor and hammers that rain down destruction at inopportune moments.

The robots come in all shapes and sizes. Some have spinning blades (horizontal or vertical); others use kitchen utensils. In Wednesday's premiere, Overkill attacks using a giant knife blade in its battle against Frenzy, which tries to inflict damage with a titanium battle ax with a meat tenderizer attached.

"It's a battle of deadly kitchen utensils," Dwyer says. "Williams-Sonoma should sponsor this one."

The "BattleBots" studio announcers are joined by correspondents on the floor, including former "Baywatch" babe Donna D'Errico and twins Randy and Jason Sklar. Bill Nye ("the science guy") also chimes in as the show's "technical expert."

D'Errico seems a little lost in her first segment, and it's clear someone fed her a line in the second segment. When one of the robots attempts to chop up its opponent and misses at every opportunity, D'Errico opines, "I haven't seen that much swinging and missing since my nephew's little league game." Cute, but it would be a lot funnier if I believed she thought of that line herself.

Trey Roski, who created the BattleBots franchise before Comedy Central made it into a TV show, said the competitions began 14 years ago at Mattel. The toy makers would modify their toy trucks, adding flame throwers.

"It went on to RobotSumo, which became big in Japan," Roski said at a Comedy Central press conference last month. "There have been a few other robot competitions, but nothing that has robots the scale that we do, up to 500 pounds."

Fun as it is, "BattleBots" probably won't have any entrants from the local robotics community. Tucker Balch, a research scientist at Carnegie Mellon University's Robotics Institute, said they're not that interested in radio-controlled robots. Instead, they concentrate on autonomous vehicles with on-board processing and decision-making abilities.

"A lot of our funding comes from the government and Defense Department, so we're kind of shy of appearing like entertainment," Balch said.

CMU is involved in RoboCup Soccer and BotBall championships that involve local high school students, but again, those robots aren't radio controlled.

Illah Nourbakhsh, an assistant professor of robotics, said CMU works on robots that can assist in urban search and rescue missions.

"That's probably as close as we get," he said. "We're probably not going to field a 'BattleBots' team anytime soon."

And who can blame them? After spending hours building a robot from scratch, it would be a huge disappointment to see it get sawed in half within a few seconds of entering the BattleBox.

Of course, when it's someone else's robot, watching "BattleBots" is an entertaining trip.



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