HAYWARD, Calif. — Coming to a sports arena near you one day soon: robots. Not just any robots, but humongous robots, MegaBots, human-like R2-D2s and C-3POs so powerful, agile, and dexterous that they can lift and curl a family sedan with one arm, or fire a washing machine 50 yards down a football field.
Gronk, do we have your attention, buddy? Put down the Dunkin’ mocha latte and ready those big, soft hands for a flyin’ Maytag.
Such is the dream of engineers Gui Cavalcanti and Matt Oehrlein, a pair of 30-year-old ex-Somerville, Mass., roomies who are shaping a sports league and sprawling media-marketing business around gargantuan battling bots.
Cavalcanti and Oehrlein are immersed in the if-you-build-it-they-will-come life here in their MegaBots, Inc., plant outside Oakland, their dream backed by some $4 million in venture capital. They have 13 full-time employees and a singular vision: to build a Formula 1-like touring sports enterprise centered around 16-foot, 430-horsepower robots that they’re convinced will pack stadiums with fans thirsting to see video games brought to life.
“That’s the dream,” said Cavalcanti, a 2009 grad of the Olin College of Engineering in Needham, Mass., where, no surprise, he majored in robotics. “Now it’s matter of getting the mixture right.”
It’s an evolving recipe, as one might expect when the aim is to rock the house with gear- and hydraulic-driven Godzillas. Cavalcanti and Oehrlein, whose monster in creation will weigh upward of 12 tons and top out at 12 miles per hour, envision a field full of similar robots, tricked out and smacking each other around to the fans’ delight.
Oh, the things these mechanical monoliths will do, including firing industrial-sized paint balls, mainly in hopes of knocking out the vision of the other combatant. When the day is done, the battle won or lost, all the robots will be cleaned up, pulled apart, packed in giant crates, and hauled off to the next city, where they will be reassembled for another battle royale.
Cavalcanti and Oehrlein are convinced it will play in Peoria and anywhere else kids and adults have a hankerin’ to see something wicked this way come to life.
“It’s sort of like monster trucks,” mused Cavalcanti, who grew up in Richmond, hooked on the video game MechWarrior, the seed of his MegaBots inspiration, “the screams come when a tire flies off — that’s when people go crazy!”
What could be better than seeing one giant robot tear off the arm of another giant robot and send it crashing to the ground with a Gronk-like spike? Well, nothing, says Cavalcanti, who envisions the arena battlefields set up as “post-apocalyptic towns straight of science fiction.”
Sounds like somewhere in the Rust Belt, albeit with the right amount of oil squirted in the appropriate U-joints and motor mounts.
The MegaBots founders believe mainstream sports have peaked out, and given the alarming number of ESPN cord-cutters reported in recent months, they may have a legitimate point. If America’s truly losing its stomach for end-arounds, moving picks, and cross-checks, maybe it’s ready to embrace the bread and circus of what Cavalcanti and Oehrlein are cooking up here on the horizon of Silicon Valley.
According to the two entrepreneurs, they pitched more than 60 venture capital firms along Sand Hill Road, the famed stretch of financiers in Menlo Park, before landing $3.85 million in seed money. Prior to that, they cobbled together $550,000 in Kickstarter funding, with some 8,000 individual investors chipping in for T-shirts and bumper stickers.
“It’s about the dream,” said Cavalcanti. “Actually, it was easy for us to get appointments with the VC firms. We were sort of their comic relief, you know, ‘If you need a change of pace, listen to the MegaBots guys.’ ”
There’s a human element involved on the battlefield, and a big one. Each robot will be operated by a two-member team stationed literally in the belly of the beast. One driver. One gunner. If fans go for this, they might get attached to the robots as well as those who operate the robots. Not unlike the racecar industry.
In their Mk. III (pronounced: Mark Three) creation, which is still being assembled, Cavalcanti will steer while Oehrlein fires the paint balls and Maytags. No doubt they’ll be having fun, fun, fun till daddy takes the T-wrecks away (c’mon, let’s lighten up a little here on the post-apocalyptic warring robots beat).
This is not what they were thinking when Cavalcanti and Oehrlein headed off to college. Upon graduating Olin, Cavalcanti began working immediately on robot projects at Boston Dynamics in Waltham. While there, he founded Artisan’s Asylum, the wildly popular hacker space in Somerville, and eventually left the robot day job for the day, night, sleeping-hours work of growing the Asylum.
“Something magical happens in those places,” said Oehrlein.
Oehrlein grew up outside Minneapolis, earned his master’s in control theory at the University of Minnesota, and went on to run a different hacker space, i3Detroit, in Ferndale, Mich. On a visit to Boston roughly four years ago, he sought out Cavalcanti, visited Artisan’s Asylum, and soon moved to Somerville to partner in building robots with his new pal. They invented MegaBots in Somerville and soon headed west to shape the dream.
“We just had dinner and hit it off,” said Oehrlein, explaining the partnership during a break from the bustle of the MegaBots workshop one recent morning. “Gui is the visionary. I just like to build stuff. One day he said to me, ‘We should do giant robots, whaddya think?’ And I said, ‘Yeah, that’s cool, now let’s think how we can make money.’ ”
Neither one was ever an athlete. They grew up with control sticks in their hands, imaginary battles to be won or lost on a monitor. Now Cavalcanti and Oehrlein think they’ve got the next best sport, their version of the Monster Mash, with spinoff opportunities for TV, toys, and comic books.
“I mean, look at the UFC,” noted Cavalcanti. “It just sold for $4 billion. So you just never know, right?”
Robots. Big robots. Firing paint bombs, lifting Chevys like miniature Hot Wheels. There are no cornfields full of long-forgotten ballplayers in Hayward. Just a couple of guys with their own field and their own dream.