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My robot and I: Why we decided to create our own office robot

When people ask about the use case for robots in offices, they clearly haven’t experienced the joy of seeing one trundling around, dodging napping dogs, expertly navigating the route from kitchen to cubicle and back with chips, sodas, and happy hour provisions.

My robot and I: Why we decided to create our own office robot
[Viacheslav Yakobchuk/Adobe Stock]

We’ve moved our company operations to the metaverse, but recently, I was needed at the “actualverse” location (i.e., IRL, in Baltimore) for a new account pitch. It was all going smoothly: The executives looked impressed with our work, we beamed in a few team members using our telepresence system, which always goes down well, and then I knew we’d absolutely clinched it when our robot SNAX rolled in with refreshments.

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When people ask about the use case for robots in offices, they clearly haven’t experienced the joy of seeing one trundling around, dodging napping dogs, and expertly navigating the route from kitchen to cubicle and back with chips, sodas, and happy hour provisions. Delight is a much-misunderstood economic driver.

Did the prospective clients see a robot at the next agency port of call? I doubt it. Even if they did, it probably wasn’t custom-made like ours. SNAX is not only a member of our team, but it is also an example of our can-do spirit, innovation, design thinking, and mechanical workshop-style mentality.

In case you now want a robot of your own, here’s how we ideated, built, and tested SNAX.

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TOKYO TO VEGAS  

I was at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas about five years ago with Jason Perry, our CTO, and neither of us was particularly impressed by the robotic form factors, functionality, or user experiences on the exhibition floor. We both agreed we could do better.

Once back in Baltimore, we got really hands-on, fashioning concepts out of clay and shooting them in 3-D to create a 3-D model. We then broke that into parts and fed the blueprints into commercial 3-D printers. I make it sound easy, but it wasn’t. In fact, it took about a month to print all the parts because we’d set up the run, then something would shift just slightly during the night, and we’d have to clear up the resulting mushed-up mess.

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When people ask about SNAX’s pot-bellied design, I tell them about being in Tokyo years ago, back when I was a school teacher before I started Mindgrub Technologies. I have done a lot of reading, thinking, and—most importantly—listening to others in recent years. I am deeply aware of the dangers of cultural appropriation. Having said all that, SNAX was inspired by Hotei, more commonly known as “The Laughing Buddha.” I mean zero disrespect to ancient Japanese traditions—it’s a sincere homage. SNAX is one happy robot, and we’re proud of the association.

UNDER THE HOOD

As I mentioned before, when Jason and I were at CES, we were less than blown away by the robots on offer. So many were just an Android tablet on a stick. What was the point?

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SNAX builds on our expertise in developing mobile apps and doing numerous kiosk integrations for clients. This means we already had a bunch of software set-ups tests in-house, but the final under-the-hood is a hacked-together embedded system using the following:

• Robot operating system.

• Raspberry Pi board.

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• Bluetooth and near-field communications.

• Integration with a myriad of in-office networks such as Slack (commands for desk-side deliveries).

• 360-degree light detection and ranging sensors and sound navigation and ranging.

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• Wayfinding (environment mapping).

• 3-D stereographic camera (best path identification).

Sound complicated? Well, yes, it was, I cannot lie. Don’t get me started on how tricky it was to get SNAX smoothly through a door or do any trajectory that wasn’t a straight line (for ages). Sure, it also sounds expensive. You would not be wrong there, either.

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But it was FUN.

In business, I don’t believe anything is wasted. SNAX was a valuable learning curve and collaboration tool for our engineering, technology, design, and user experience teams. If there’s one piece of advice I can offer fellow CEOs, it’s that cross-departmental projects are excellent at engaging your team members—especially when the fruits of their labor bring them a much-needed beer after sundown.

SNAX also has a voice. We scripted everything we knew the robot would need to say or respond to. Then we laid down the audio files, as voice prompts, using keyword recognition. In symbiosis with SNAX’s vocalization, we also spent a lot of time designing SNAX’s visual display, coming up with a series of facial configurations in its interface design. After a bunch of user testing fails, we decided to let SNAX “be a robot” and not remotely humanoid, taking our cues from Anime and Manga for a pop-culture personable flair.

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SNAX AND ITS DIGITAL TWIN

I’m sure you’re wondering, now that my company has shifted much of its operations to the metaverse, what’s the point of having a robot? Well, aside from the benefits of company-wide R&D, a robot is an interesting metaphor for holding space. When we’re all working from anywhere, we know SNAX is still back in Baltimore.

OK, it’s not exactly a digital twin concept in the traditional co-located mechanical sense. But it could be, over time. We could make changes to the way SNAX operates inside the virtual environment, then replicate those on the house-built model.

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Plans are underway to have a representation of SNAX inside our metaverse-based office too. And yes, our robot will then have its own avatar.


Todd Marks is the award-winning Founder and CEO of Mindgrub Technologies, the cutting-edge digital experiences agency. 

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