Cybernetics in the 3rd Millennium (C3M) -- Volume 3 Number 4, Apr. 2004
Alan B. Scrivener --- www.well.com/~abs --- mailto:email@example.com
Clues from the Coin-op Convention
~ and ~
Report on the Robot Races
[This is a continuation of last month's e-Zine; see the archives
listed at the bottom of this document if you haven't read part one.]
"Driver carries no cash -- he's married."
-- bumper sticker
For those of you in a hurry, here is the short version of this month's
e-Zine: the future of so-called "coin-operated" amusements will, in
fact, involve few coins, and the future of so-called "autonomous
vehicles" will, in fact, not be very autonomous.
Okay, here's the long version:
I was working furiously on completing some programming and visualization
work I had been hired to do for the Grand Challenge the week before the
race, and I just flat-out ran out of time. So on the evening of Tue.,
March 9 my buddy Bob B. showed up and I wasn't done, and loaded up
my computers with the hope of finishing the work in Las Vegas. We
caravanned back to Bob's place, to drop his truck at his house, and then
set out from San Diego in my Plymouth Voyager mini-van. Bob likes
to drive all night, so I let him, and slept in the passenger seat.
It was like time travel; I woke up three times, in Barstow, Baker and
Primm, and then we were there at dawn. We'd reserved our rooms starting
for Tuesday night so we could check in right away, at the Somerset House
(right off the strip and near the convention center; affordable yet with
kitchens; learned about it from the Grateful Dead newsgroups in the
early 1990s when the Dead played Vegas).
( www.somerset-house.com )
We were able to get a full "night's" sleep Wed. morning, and a
shower, before decamping for breakfast and then the coin-op
conference at about the time we would've otherwise been checking
in if we hadn't reserved Tue. night. Walking to Circus Circus to
have breakfast at the buffet, we saw the old Silver City Casino,
which used to be the only non-smoking casino in Vegas (to my knowledge)
was being torn down. Of course, things are always being torn down
in this town, and new things are always being built. We saw a new
casino called "the Wynn" -- from Steve Wynn of Mirage, Treasure Island
and Bellagio fame -- going up nearby.
So at about 3 PM, with an hour left for the day's exhibits, we
made our first foray into the Amusement Showcase International (ASI).
( asi-show.com )
We spent the hour getting the "lay of the land" and planning our more
extensive visit the next day. A few things we noticed:
* The show seemed surprisingly small, especially
compared to IAAPA in Orlando last November (see C3M
volume 2 number 11).
* Stern, the last pinball company in America,
( www.sternpinball.com )
was showcasing a new game, "Ripley's Believe It or Not!"
( www.sternpinball.com/ripleys.htm )
* "Replay Magazine" is still publishing after all these years.
( www.replaymag.com )
* A number of 2D video games from the 1980s are being
rereleased as nostalgia items, such as Galaxian,
Ms. Pacman, Dragon's Lair and Space Invaders (now in its
Silver Anniversary edition!), obviously trying to bring
the baby boomers and gen-x-ers who grew up with them
back into the arcades.
( www.namcoarcade.com/nai_gamedisplay.asp?gam=spaceqix )
Bob was delighted to find that Hoffman Mint, the major makers
of game tokens were giving out free samples.
( www.hoffmanmint.com/tokens.html )
Also, just about every game being demoed had a bowl of tokens
in front of it so you could try it for free, and Bob used the
opportunity to see if he could collect one of each different
The show closed for the day at 4:00 PM. On our way out we
passed the "Night Club & Bar & Beverage Retailer Beverage & Food
Convention and Trade Show" in the hall next door, which was also
letting out, and where they'd been giving away free samples of
( www.beverage-retailer.com/conventions/vegas04/brochure/index.html )
It seemed to be disgorging a lot of skimpily dressed, drunken women.
Hmmm. (Why hadn't we go to that show instead?) Then, crossing
Paradise Blvd., we met a man who'd attended that show and struck
up a conversation. We told him our show had seemed small, in terms
of both exhibitors and attendees. He said that last year the beverage
show people had been able to get in free to the coin-op show.
The I remembered I read this myself on the web.
( www.replaymag.com/detail.htm )
I can't find the link anymore, but I'd also ran across a discussion
of how they stopped letting the beverage show attendees -- mostly
owners and managers of bars -- into the coin-op show because they
didn't want them attempting to buy coin-op amusements directly from
the manufacturers, instead of going through their distributors;
the distributors had complained. "How stupid," I thought. How
else do you create demand? I mean, Pepsi advertises on TV, and yet
they still fully expect me to buy their product through retailers;
I don't go, "Hmmm, Pepsi, I think I'll call Atlanta and order me some."
(In other words, you don't solve channel conflict problems with bad
marketing!) But it left us wondering: is the coin-op business in
trouble, or just the ASI show?
I still had that programming project to finish, so after we walked
back to the motel Bob helped me load my two computers -- and a
projector and screen I was using as the monitor for one of them --
into my room, and the he walked down the strip to do some gambling
while I got to work. I discovered to my delight that there was
a wireless WiFi from someplace that I was able to tap in, though
it was intermittent. When I finished my programming, and used the
newly-written tools to produce new 3D graphics, my next task was
to transfer the images from the Linux system where I created them to
a Mac iBook laptop that had the WiFi card, so I could upload them
to a web site where my client could snag them.
( www.well.com/~abs/EastMojave2004/HD2004_vizpix/000.html )
By now Bob had returned, and he helped debug a Local Area Network
(LAN) problem standing in my way. But then the WiFi link kept
timing out, and so I was thwarted. I planned instead to cut a
CD and take it to Kinko's for uploading later. But now it was dark,
and time for dinner, and it was our only night in Vegas. So we went
out for some "night life." We first went to Neonopolis, a shopping
mall with a collection of vintage neon signs near the Fremont Street
Experience, for dinner.
( www.neonopolis.net )
Afterwards we enjoyed on of the shows on the Fremont Street
barrel arch, a huge semi-cylindrical color pixel display spanning
four city blocks, which features animations synchronized with
550,000 Watts of music.
( www.vegasexperience.com )
There are a variety of shows they cycle through, one per hour,
based on pop songs, tropical music (steel drums, etc.), jazz,
big band, and so on. But we lucked out and got to see our
favorite mix, the "psychedelic" show based on the "acid rock"
of the '60s -- all songs which were on the top 40 when Bob & I
were in high school. I jotted down the playlist, with the idea
of buying all the songs (only excerpted during the show) off of
the Apple iTunes store to make a CD of later:
* Rock and Roll / Led Zeppelin
* Jumping Jack Flash / Rolling Stones
* Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds / Beatles
* Light My Fire / Doors
* Purple Haze / Jimmi Hendrix
* Black Magic Woman / Santana
* Won't Get Fooled Again / The Who
(I must add, however, that a large number of the pixels in this awesome
display were burned out. Given what a great draw the system is
to the downtown are, I find it shameful that the city allows it to
remain partially broken this way.)
Next we made our way to the Treasure Island Resort & Casino,
now renamed "TI" to sound hipper, and catch the new "Sirens"
dancing girls show out front where the pirate ship battle used
to be. But though the freebie magazines such as "What's On"
( www.ilovevegas.com )
all loudly proclaimed the new show, none mentioned that it
was "dark" the days were were there. (that's Vegas for you.)
We showed up and there was a technical rehearsal in progress,
and an attentive audience, but no dancing girls. We watched for
a while, then did some other site-seeing and called it a night
about 3 AM. (After all, we had slept past noon.)
Back at the motel I tried again to upload my 3D graphics to the
web. I kept getting 80% through and timing out, and convinced that
I was "almost there" I kept trying and trying until dawn, when I
realized it was a sucker's game. I went ahead and burned a data
CD and took it to Kinko's, where it took all of 5 minutes to upload
the files. Oh, this was after discovering that the Kinko's
on 4th Street near downtown isn't open 24 hours (!), so I had to
go back south to the one on Howard Hughes Center Dr.
( www.smartpages.com/home/kinkoscopies964 )
The next "morning" (i.e., 5 hours later) we checked out of our
motel, parked at the Hilton next to the convention center, where
the "Star Trek Experience" is located,
( www.startrekexp.com )
and had our first meal of the day, lunch at Quark's Bar. I had
the Flaming Ribs of Targ, and Bob had the Holy Rings of Betazed.
( www.reviewjournal.com/db/dining.detail?pid=3900&s=1 )
One of these days I want to try a Warp Core Breach, when I have time
to sober up afterwards.
( www.startrek.com/startrek/view/news/article/5351.html )
( ikvbloodlust.net/netgifs/TE03095.jpg )
While waiting for our food, Bob told me about a new gambling gimmick
he'd discovered the night before -- he'd read about it on the web,
but it had been his first real experience -- in which certain special
slot machines some times pay off in commemorative coins that are .999
silver, stamped with patterns unique to the casino they're in, and
dispensed in special plastic sleeves to protect them from scratching.
He showed me some he'd won at the Bellagio. They were worth $10 each
as casino chips (that's what the cashier would redeem them for), but
Bob was keeping his as collectibles.
( cgi.ebay.com/ws/eBayISAPI.dll?ViewItem&category=3443&item=3290011509&rd=1&ssPageName=WDVW&tc=photo#ebayphotohosting )
(If the above link is gone, go to ebay.com and search for
"Bellagio silver strike" for a similar auction.)
We realized in discussing it that the coins changed the dynamics of
slot machine play for him. Usually he would budget some money for
gambling and quit when it was all gone, going home with nothing to
show for it. By keeping the coins (which he couldn't put back in
the slot machine anyway) he now actually got some take-home value
for the slot machine play. He'd spent about $100 getting 10 coins
at the Bellagio, so he'd paid about what they were "worth."
Next it was back to the AZSI show for a few more hours, just a short
walk through the Hilton. Here are a few more highlights:
* Stern was touting the designer of their new "Ripley's
Believe It or Not!" pinball game, Pat Lawlor, along with
about a dozen manufacturing prototypes, one of which was
being raffled off. Pat also designed the "Roller Coaster
Tycoon" pinball game (2002) which Bob and I had played
many times. (I'd found it ironic that this pinball game was
based on a computer game!)
( www.sternpinball.com/Rollercoaster.htm )
I got to shake his hand and tell him how much I enjoyed his
work. Later we reflected that this one man may well be that
last pinball designer in America, or even the world.
( www.patlawlordesign.com )
* Stern was also featuring their new "ToPS Tournament Pinball
System" which allows pinball games to be used in tournament
play without networking.
* With more and more arcades switching from tokens to
magnetic stripe cards, the makers of "coin pusher"
games -- which used to allow you to win coins if you caused
a "coin avalanche" -- are moving to designs which recycle the
coins and pay out tickets for prizes. (Of course you can't put
the tickets back in the machines.)
( www.mountaincoin.com/ice/pirate.html )
* We kept asking people "what's new this year?" and one guy pointed
us to the "Virtual Pinball" game from an Austrian company.
( www.tab.at/TABUE/Index.htm )
It was basically a giant flat-screen monitor mounted at an angle,
hooked to a computer running a pinball simulation. It didn't
seem to respond to nudging, and I couldn't seem to "tilt" it,
which I found a major failing.
* Another new thing was a new hardware platform with a periscope-
like viewing system, called "Vortex V3."
( www.globalvr.com/products_vortek_v3_intro.html )
The game could be upgraded later with new software.
I was disappointed that it wasn't 3D stereo, since it looked
like it could have been.
* There are new juke boxes that are not only digital, but
networked, and able to download songs from a central server,
making the music library HUGE and CONSTANTLY UPDATING!
( www.nsmmusic.com )
The sign said "virtually every song ever recorded," so I
tried to stump them with "I'm Comin' Virginia" performed by
Willie "the Lion" Smith -- which I think is only on 78 RPM
records. They didn't have it. My second choice was "Toxic"
by Britney Spears, which was currently in the top 10. Fifteen
seconds later I was listening to it.
* There were a lot of booths devoted to dollar bill changers
and similar technology. It seemed it must be important to
arcade operators to automate the "cashier" functions of selling
tokens or magnetic stripe cards, to reduce cost, errors, and
"shrinkage" (employee theft).
( www.innovative-technology.co.uk )
As we walked the floor, Bob and I got to talking about how we
would "save" the pinball industry if it were up to us. I was thinking
about the lessons learned from "The Innovator's Dilemma" (1997) by
Clayton M. Christensen,
( www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/0060521996/hip-20 )
and its sequel, "The Innovator's Solution: Creating and Sustaining
Successful Growth" (2003) by Clayton M. Christensen, Michael E. Raynor.
( www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/1578518520/hip-20 )
Pinball games "fell off a cliff" by becoming more complex and expensive
until they were too costly both to buy and maintain to survive against
video games and (worse) home games. Our plan is this: make a very
cheap, bullet-proof home pinball game that can be easily reconfigured.
Our idea was components such as bumpers and flippers that are wirelessly
networked with something like BlueTooth (but cheaper), and programmed
with a small PC. The only wires needed would be power. Don't use any
celebrity or pop-culture intellectual property, just simple, unadorned
pinball with a wooden playing surface and a glass top, and sturdy
targets. Grow the home market until you're ready to take on the arcade
games with a cheaper, lower-maintenance alternative that can be
reconfigured frequently to prevent boredom. You read it here first.
(We shared some of these ideas with Pat Lawler. He suddenly had to run
We closed the show down. As tear-down began, Bob and I walked back
through the Hilton towards my van. On the way he asked if we could
stop long enough for him to find and play the slot machine in the
Hilton, if there was one, that paid out those silver coins. Sure,
I said, and waited for him at Quark's Bar sipping coffee and watching
for Klingon women. It turned out that the theme of the Hilton's coins
was Hilton logos throughout history, and the last one was from the
24th century (obviously a Star Trek tie-in without the copyright
( cgi.ebay.com/ws/eBayISAPI.dll?ViewItem&item=3289266553&category=3443#ebayphotohosting )
(If the above link is gone, go to ebay.com and search for
"Hilton silver strike" for a similar auction.)
As Bob showed me what he won afterwards, I began to realize that
some of the designs were common, others rare -- sort of like contest
game cards. This adds to the incentive for players to keep playing
to get the rarer coins.
We'd been in Vegas about 32 hours and had crammed in an awesome
amount of fun, activity and learning. It was almost time to head out
into the desert. Our final stop was the new Fry's Electronics
store in Vegas, which I wanted to take a quick look at before hopping
on I-15 southbound. (For those of you outside of California, Fry's
is a legendary store that started in Silicon Valley and sells everything
a geek could ever need at great prices; it also has a very liberal
return policy. Rumor has it the 1999 indie "film" "The Blair Witch
Project" was shot on camcorders that were bought at Fry's and then
returned for a full refund after the production wrapped.)
Every Fry's (except the one in San Diego -- poo) has a "theme"
that is used to decorate it throughout. The one in Vegas has
a gambling theme, no surprise there, and entrance is a giant slot
( www.well.com/~abs/Cyb/4.669211660910299067185320382047/frys_slot.jpg )
Even the barricades in front to prevent people from smashing vehicles
into the doors and looting the place are giant stacks of quarters.
( www.well.com/~abs/Cyb/4.669211660910299067185320382047/frys_coins.jpg )
* * * * * *
After last month's column, I got two responses: one was an "unsubscribe"
request, and the other was the comment, "You sure seem to have an
obsession with pinball." Truth be told, I'm an obsessive person.
Everything I'm interested in I obsess on. Ever since I began
enjoying the work of David Lynch, I've come to understand that this
is not necessarily a bad thing. One friend summed it up by saying
I'm a "depth first" person. (This is a referenced to a concept from
Information Science: a tree-walking algorithm can be "breadth first"
or "depth first.")
By the way, if you're also a pinball fanatic you may enjoy the Internet
Pinball Database (IPDB).
( www.ipdb.org )
So here I am, already exceeding the word count of last month's
'zine, and I haven't gotten to the robots yet. But there is
something important here, something I hadn't even realized yet
as I wrote last month's. I had enough clues, the silver coins
in the slot machines, the giant stacks of quarters in front of Fry's,
the "coin push" games that recycle the coins because the arcades
are switching to magnetic stripe cards...
A week after the robot races it was Bob's birthday, and I wanted
to get him some kind of frame to hold his silver coins. I quickly
found what I was looking for at a company called Cassidy Frames.
( www.cassidyframes.com/frames/strike.html )
Along the way I discovered that the coins are called "Silver Strikes,"
and there is a rich web culture built up around them. I passed some
links along to Bob, and he found that there are many more types than
A few weeks later Bob found a magazine called "Strictly Slots"
which had an article in the March 2004 issue called "The 20 Greatest
( www.strictlyslots.com )
Number 11 was called "The Bonus: Game within a Game," and described
the silver coins he'd started collecting, originally from a slot
manufacturer called Anchor Games. According to the article:
"Anchor's first proprietary game, called 'Silver Strike,'
had a special 'bonus jackpot' of commemorative silver tokens,
which were displayed in the top of a slot that had a see-through
We learned that this innovation happened in the late 1990s, and we'd
only now figured it out. Meanwhile, innovation number 18 was called
"Ticket In/Ticket Out: The Cashless Revolution." It described a recent
innovation by which slots pay off in bar-coded tickets that can be
cashed out or inserted in other slots. Finally I began to realize
what's happening here.
Remembering Marshall McLuhan's famous dictum that a technology is
invisible until it becomes obsolete, at which time it becomes an
object of nostalgia, I realized that we are witnessing the gradual
obsolescence of coins, which have been around for about 2,700 years.
( www.fleur-de-coin.com/e-library/oldestcoin.asp?sec=2 )
Now that they are vanishing as payment for games, coins have re-emerged
as PRIZES in those games.
The ancient fortune-telling deck the Tarot, forerunner of today's
playing cards, uses "disks" or "pentacles" as the suit representing
both money and magic.
( www.facade.com/tarot )
Money IS a form of magic. Coinage, paper money, lending at interest,
and electronic funds transfer have all increased its magical powers.
The use of cryptography for internet commerce represents a new phase
in the growth of money's magic. This is one of the central themes
of the novel "Cryptonomicon" (1999) by Neal Stephenson.
( www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/0060512806/hip-20 )
He explores this theme again in his new three volume "Baroque Cycle,"
set in the 1600s and 1700s, which began with "Quicksilver" (2003).
( www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/0380977427/hip-20 )
It deals in part with the beginnings of paper money in Europe,
and the problems with coins being devalued due to "shaving" off
the metal, a problem solved by the introduction of serrated edges.
(Apparently people in marketplaces used to spend more time haggling
over the value of coins than the cost of goods! Talk about friction
in commerce...) As he explains on his web site
( www.nealstephenson.com )
in article called "How the Baroque Cycle began,"
"Around the time that I was closing in on the end of
'Cryptonomicon,' I heard from a couple of different people
about some interesting things having to do with Isaac Newton
and with Gottfried Leibniz. One person pointed out to me that
Newton had spent about the last 30 years of his life working
at the mint, which was interesting to me. In 'Cryptonomicon'
there was a lot of stuff about money, so I had been thinking
about money anyway.
"The other related thing that I bumped into about the same time --
I was reading a book by George Dyson, called 'Darwin Among the
Machines.' He talked a little bit about the work of Leibniz with
computers. He arguably was the founder of symbolic logic and he
worked with computing machines. I found it striking at a time when
I was already working on a book about money and a book about
computers that there were these two people 300 years ago who
were quite interested in the same topics. And not only that,
but they had this big, famous rivalry that supposedly was about
which of them had invented the calculus first, although it was
really about a lot more than that.
"I began to do a bit of reading about that era and immediately
got excited about it because so many things were happening all
at once during that time period. So, I decided that as soon as
I got done with 'Cryptonomicon,' I would turn all my efforts towards
trying to write a historical piece set during that era."
* * * * * *
Question: What do coin-op games and the robots in the DARPA race have
Answer: They're both designed to operate autonomously.
(Having worked as an arcade floorman, I can tell you that these
"autonomous" games require a lot of human intervention. Interestingly,
the most common failure mode was coin jams.)
* * * * * *
"What is Desert Bloom? An experimental test network for unified
-- Synergy Strike Force call for participation
Around dusk on Thursday 11 March Bob and I finally headed south on I-15,
leaving Las Vegas bound for Barstow. We were a little sleep-deprived,
so upon our arrival we checked into our motel, the American Inn
(which were were lucky to get since the whole town was filled up
due to the DARPA race) and hit the hay early.
The next morning we took our equipment to Barstow Community College,
( www.barstow.cc.ca.us )
and set up in a classroom that had been designated as the "op
center" for "Operation Desert Bloom," Dr. Dave's "shadow event"
occurring along with the robot race.
( www.desertbloom.org )
Perhaps a little explanation is in order. Dr. Dave's company,
Mindtel LLC, was hired by DARPA to provide the communications link
between the race organizers and all emergency services in the area.
They did this by having an emergency operations center in a bus,
( www.ideationsllc.com/projects/desertbloom/photos/eoc/eoc.html )
and satellite stations at the race start south of Barstow, CA,
( www.ideationsllc.com/projects/desertbloom/photos/slashx/slashx.html )
and at the finish line in Primm, NV, and elsewhere. But in addition,
Dave had organized a "shadow event" that was kind of a "geek fest"
of technology demonstrations surrounding the race, involving
a loose affiliation of staff and volunteers he called the
"Synergy Strike Force,"
( aero.mindtel.com:8080/dgc )
and its headquarters was the "op center" at Barstow Community College.
( www.ideationsllc.com/projects/desertbloom/photos/bcc/bcc.html )
This is where Bob and I spent most of Friday. We set up my computers,
projector and screen, and were showing the 3D graphics I'd developed.
( desert-bloom.mindtel.com:8080/dgc/Members/abs )
A multi-way videoconferencing link was being set up between us,
the starting line, the finish line, and the emergency ops bus.
In addition, we had a number of other displays, including a real-time
feed of the locations of all the race vehicles, most of which were
at the test trials track at the Fontana Speedway.
( aero.mindtel.com:8181/odb-dgc-osd-nii/dgc-webtracking/dgcwbtrkn.html )
This software, by Jeff S. and Steve B., was web-downloadable,
so anyone could get a plug-in and watch the same displays.
We also had paper maps of the race route on the wall, and some other
experimental software showing various ways to track the vehicles.
(After the race, RSI ID Technologies Inc. posted an account on the web
on their tracking technology and how it was used, called "Successful
RFID Tracking During DARPA Grand Challenge Boasts 100% Read Rate.")
( www.rsiidtech.com/solutions_rfid_darpa.asp )
For a while students and faculty from the college, Pentagon people,
emergency response personnel (police, fire, etc.) and a variety of
"Synergy Strike Force" folks were coming through, to see the side show.
( www.well.com/~abs/Cyb/4.669211660910299067185320382047/ops_center1.jpg )
Volunteers were being deployed to the railroad crossing on the race
route to be trainspotters.
( www.ideationsllc.com/projects/desertbloom/photos/johnryan/johnryan.html )
But then, in the afternoon, there was a lull in the action.
( www.well.com/~abs/Cyb/4.669211660910299067185320382047/ops_center2.jpg )
We did some web cruising through the WiFi links provided by Barstow
College, and after reading everything we could find about the upcoming
race, I found an interesting article on the future of video games:
"Life After the Video Game Crash."
( www.pointlesswasteoftime.com/games/crash.html )
A bunch of people went down to the starting line, at the Slash X Ranch
Cafe, a local "biker bar" named after the old brand of the ranch where
it was located.
( www.1stoptravelguide.com/calif/923xx/barstow/business/slashx/slashx.htm )
One of the jokes of the day was "I read about Slash X on Slash Dot."
( slashdot.org )
We wondered how many people had heard of both before that week.
Bob and stuck around to keep an eye on all the equipment. When our
relief arrived, we took a break and visited two nearby museums
so I could add to my photo collection, to be used if I ever got
around to updating my web site on the history of the area.
( www.well.com/~abs/EastMojave2004 )
We saw the California Desert Information Center,
( www.caohwy.com/c/caldesic.htm )
some outdoor displays in Centennial Park,
( www.1stoptravelguide.com/calif/923xx/923image/centpk.jpg )
and the Mojave River Valley Museum.
( mvm.4t.com )
Then we had lunch at Bun Boy in Barstow, sitting at a table with
a wood-burned plaque that said "Sit Long and Talk Much," but we
had to get back to the college.
There was a snafu going on when we arrived involving getting all
the volunteers badged, but after Dr. Dave arrived, who'd been
doing an arial survey of the race route,
( www.ideationsllc.com/projects/desertbloom/photos/dgcaerial/dgcaerial.html )
and was then delayed by a flat tire,
( www.well.com/~abs/Cyb/4.669211660910299067185320382047/flat.jpg )
it was all squared away. By now the op center was shutting down
for the day, and our friend Wayne H. and his daughter had arrived,
so we decamped for dinner, and then went to bed straight away so we'd
be ready bright and early for the race Saturday morning.
* * * * * *
"It's control. All these things arise from one difficulty:
control. For the first time it was inside, do you see. The control
is put inside. No more need to suffer passively under 'outside
forces' to veer into any wind. As if...
"A market needed no longer be run by the Invisible Hand, but now
could create itself, its own logic, momentum, style, from inside.
Putting the control inside was ratifying what de facto had
happened that you had dispensed with God. But you had taken on a
greater, and more harmful, illusion. The illusion of control. That
A could do B. But that was false. Completely. No one can do.
Things only happen, A and B are unreal, are names for parts that
ought to be inseparable...."
-- Thomas Pynchon, 1973
(describing the philosophical consequences
of guidance systems in rockets)
At this point my work was pretty much done, and all that was left
was to enjoy the race. Once again sleep-deprived, Bob and I dragged
our sorry heinies to Slash X before dawn to get a good spot on the
( www.well.com/~abs/Cyb/4.669211660910299067185320382047/slashx_bleachers.jpg )
Wayne and his daughter had been there for a while, and were nearly
frozen. I fetched some blankets out of my van to drape everyone in,
and especially to insulate our bottoms from the cold metal bleachers.
My friends and I had done a lot of speculation on how the teams
would do, fueled by information from the web. The best overview
article had been in WIRED Magazine's December 2003 issue, with profiles
of some of the teams.
( www.wired.com/wired/archive/12.03/robot.html )
The most complete rundown was on the DARPA web site.
( www.darpa.mil/grandchallenge/teams.htm )
One thing we noticed in a number of descriptions of technical
approaches was that the teams found that the bouncing of their
vehicles made the sensors inaccurate, or worse, and that the
sensors needed to mounted on shock-absorbing pods to stabilizing.
We realized they were recreating the evolution of the head and neck.
A few weeks before the race, the favored Red Team, lead by "Red"
Whittacre of Carnegie Mellon University (CMU), rolled their robot,
the Humvee-based "Sandstorm," and destroyed its sensor pod.
( 220.127.116.11/newimages/InvertedWide.jpg )
It had to be hurriedly rebuilt, and still wasn't completely functional
by race day.
Sitting in the bleachers waiting for the race as dawn broke, we met
a young man who was even more sleep-deprived than we were. He was
on the CalTech team, fielding the vehicle known as "Bob," and they
had been working to replace a broken transmission and fix some flaky
( team.caltech.edu )
One optical sensor array was being overpowered by the low sun, and so
they had programmed it to come on later and were hoping for the best.
Finally it was time for the race. The formalities began with the
Marine Corps Mounted Color Guard, from the Marine Corps Logistics Base,
in Barstow, CA.
( https://www.bam.usmc.mil/mcg.htm )
They ride Palomino mustangs captured as wild horses by the Bureau of
Land Management (BLM) in the Mojave Desert. They were beautiful.
Next were some speeches by some of the DARAP sponsors, and the
race organizers from SCORE International, who stage off-road desert
races such as the Baja 500.
( www.score-international.com )
Then the vehicles began leaving the starting line. The best
account of the race I have found on-line is at the web site of
Off-Road.com, the second biggest motorsports site on the 'Net.
( www.off-road.com/race/events/2004darpa )
The starting ritual was carefully defined: the team and vehicle was
announced, a countdown was started, the starters verified that the
vehicle had activated its flashing yellow lights and audible alarm,
the chain at the front of the "chute" (made of cement highway barriers)
was dropped, and the checker flag was waved at T minus zero. Then,
one of several things happened: the vehicle took off, or didn't,
or lurched forward and stopped, or aimed for the spectators, or
hit a bush and rolled over...
Every five minutes, they did it again. (At least that was the plan.)
The final results were published on DARPA's web site.
( www.darpa.mil/grandchallenge/media/final_data.pdf )
Below I have quoted the official DARPA results, with links to pictures
on the Off-Road.com web site, and some of my own comments.
Final Data from DARPA Grand Challenge
As of 5:00 p.m. PST, March 13, 2004
Vehicle 22 - Red Team - At mile 7.4, on switchbacks in a mountainous
section, vehicle went off course, got caught on a berm
and rubber on the front wheels caught fire, which
was quickly extinguished. Vehicle was command-disabled.
( www.off-road.com/race/events/2004darpa/images/hernandez-DARPA04.jpg )
The Red Team's "Sandstorm" was definitely the star. The vehicles were
being released in the order of their point scores during the qualifying
trails that week, so we saw the best first. The bleachers faced west,
away from the rising sun, and the starting gates faced north. The
big red Humvee took off a good clip, made the first left turns, and
began following the track counter-clockwise around Slash X, across the
highway (State Route 347, aka Barstow Road), and northeast towards
Primm. Each vehicle was followed by a chase truck, driven by a former
Baja off-road race winner, with a DARPA representative in the passenger
seat with the radio control to pause or disable the vehicle (no other
controls allowed), and in the back seat was a member of the vehicle
team with schematics, ready to answer any technical questions. As the
star car, Sandstorm was also followed by two helicopters, one from DARPA
and one from a TV news station.
Vehicle 21 - SciAutonicsII - At mile 6.7, two-thirds of the way up
Daggett Ridge, vehicle went into an embankment and
became stuck. Vehicle was command-disabled.
( www.off-road.com/race/events/2004darpa/images/hernandez-DARPA12.jpg )
The excitement was building as the second vehicle also took off at
a good clip, cleared the first turns, and scooted across the desert.
I definitely was aware of being present at a historical event.
Vehicle 5 - Team Caltech - At mile 1.3, vehicle veered off course,
went through a fence, tried to come back on the road,
but couldn't get through the fence again. Vehicle was
( www.off-road.com/race/events/2004darpa/images/hernandez-DARPA01.jpg )
This was the first vehicle to be stymied by barbed wire. I remember
once at at Virtual Reality (VR) talk being told that current "eyephone"
technology is so low-resolution that the wearers are legally blind.
This was certainly also be the case with these 'bots and their
video cameras. Seeing barbed wire is a very tough problem.
Vehicle 7 - Digital Auto Drive - At mile 6.0, vehicle was paused
to allow a wrecker to get through, and, upon resuming
motion, vehicle was hung up on a football-sized rock.
Vehicle was command-disabled.
( www.off-road.com/race/events/2004darpa/images/hernandez-DARPA13.jpg )
Vehicle 25 - Virginia Tech - Vehicle brakes locked up in the start
area. Vehicle was removed from the course.
This was the first failure witnessed by the crowd in the bleachers.
Vehicle 23 - Axion Racing - Vehicle circled the wrong way in the
start area. Vehicle was removed from the course.
Another failure, this one rather comic.
Vehicle 2 - Team CajunBot - Vehicle brushed a wall on its way
out of the chute. Vehicle has been removed from
A slight whoopsie and this 'bot was disabled.
Vehicle 13 - Team ENSCO - Vehicle moved out smartly, but, at mile
0.2, when making its first 90-degree turn, the vehicle
flipped. Vehicle was removed from the course.
( www.off-road.com/race/events/2004darpa/images/hobbs-EnscoEntryroarsofftheline.jpg )
This was a dramatic development, in clear view of the bleachers.
We heard a rumor that one of the waypoints was inside a ocotillo
bush near the start, and several of the vehicles hit the bush.
I think this one rolled as it hit it. Wayne's daughter was
disappointed, because this little six-wheeled critter, nicknamed
"David," had been her favorite.
Vehicle 4 - Team CIMAR - At mile 0.45, vehicle ran into some wire
and got totally wrapped up in it. Vehicle was command-
( www.off-road.com/race/events/2004darpa/images/hernandez-DARPA19.jpg )
Once again barbed wire stopped a 'bot. This one was was all tangled up,
proving again that barbed wire is a serious hazard.
At this point we moved out of the bleachers and down to the road right
next to the course, to get a closer look at the vehicles as they passed.
The next vehicle out was the high school entry, nicknamed the "Doom
Buggy." I'd read that during the trials it had aimed straight for
the spectators; one student compared it to the "Deathmobile" float
in the climactic parade scene in the movie "Animal House."
Vehicle 10 - Palos Verdes High School Road Warriors - Vehicle hit
a wall in the start area. Vehicle was removed from the
( www.off-road.com/race/events/2004darpa/images/hobbs-DoomBuggysteersastraightlineintothewall.jpg )
Just like in the trials, the "Doom Buggy" went into "Deathmobile" mode
and aimed for the crowd, in this case straight at us. It was stopped
by a concrete barrier and a hurricane fence, which it knocked over.
It then backed up (!) as if to try at us again, but it was disabled.
Vehicle 17 - SciAutonics I - At mile 0.75, vehicle went off the
route. After sensors tried unsuccessfully for 90
minutes to reacquire the route, without any movement,
vehicle was command-disabled.
( www.off-road.com/race/events/2004darpa/images/hernandez-DARPA23.jpg )
There was a long delay as they waited for this vehicle to get its
bearings. During the delay the news helicopter, which had no radio,
landed on the course, further delaying things. (Later we heard
a rumor that "the Desert Bloom helicopter collided with the DARPA
helicopter," which was impossible, since Desert Bloom only had
a light plane.)
Vehicle 20 - Team TerraMax - Several times, the vehicle sensed
some bushes near the road, backed up and corrected
itself. At mile 1.2, it was not able to proceed
further. Vehicle was command-disabled.
( www.off-road.com/race/events/2004darpa/images/hobbs-DavidFacesoffwithGoliath.jpg )
This vehicle, nicknamed "Goliath," may have also been foiled by the
waypoint in the bush.
Vehicle 15 - Team TerraHawk - Withdrew prior to start.
Vehicle 9 - The Golem Group - At mile 5.2, while going up a
steep hill, vehicle stopped on the road, in gear
and with engine running, but without enough throttle
to climb the hill. After trying for 50 minutes, the
vehicle was command-disabled.
( www.off-road.com/race/events/2004darpa/images/hernandez-DARPA15.jpg )
Vehicle 16 - The Blue Team - Withdrew prior to start.
( www.off-road.com/race/events/2004darpa/images/hobbs-BlueTeamwobblesoffthestartingline.jpg )
The Blue Team's motorcycle fell over in the chute. Later we heard a
rumor that all of its systems hadn't been switched on properly.
What a disappointment that must have been.
At this point Bob and I decided to beat the traffic and exit the parking
lot ASAP. We grabbed some breakfast at a truck stop called Mrs. B's,
and headed back over to the op center at Barstow College.
We hadn't been at the op center for fifteen minutes when the last icon
stopped moving on the map display, and a few seconds later the official
race web site said the race was over. We were absorbing this data when
my friend Lisa T. called me on my cell phone from San Diego. She'd
been following the race on the web and wanted to know if it was true.
Later we were told that the vehicle that made it the farthest (over 7
miles), the Red Team Sandstorm, had gotten stuck on a hump at the
Daggett switchbacks, broken a front axle, spun its front wheels until
they caught fire, and was also leaking fuel. This lead the DARPA rep
to disable it, and they jumped out of the chase truck and extinguished
Exhausted at this point, Bob and I loaded up my equipment into
my mini-van and retuned to our motel for a much-needed nap.
That evening there was a party at the finish line at Buffalo Bill's
in Primm, at the state line (though none of the vehicles had made it
more than about 5% of the 140 mile course). Bob and I drove out
for it, stopping at Calico Ghost Town to buy some of their great
canvas silver ore bags (good for holding coins!) and play an antique
pre-flipper wooden pinball game,
( www.calicotown.com )
and we also stopped at Afton Canyon, "the Grand Canyon of the Mojave,"
to enjoy nature a little and see a piece of the historic Mojave Road.
( www.ca.blm.gov/barstow/afton.html )
Soon we arrived at Buffalo Bill's in Primm.
( aero.mindtel.com/~mindtel/Alan1/EastMojave2004/HD2004_digipix/Mojave4019.jpg )
We had to wait a little while in the casino to meet up with my friend
Steve P., who had tickets for us to the race reception, so Bob found
another Silver Strike and won some coins with pictures of Buffalo Bill
and Wild Bill Hickock. Steve appeared, and we joined the festivities
in the main showroom. It was free food and a cash bar, with some
more speeches by the DARPA sponsors and the SCORE organizers. It was
announced that the race will be repeated in about a year, and since
no one had claimed the prize, it would be doubled to $2 million.
We also were showed video highlights of the race, and heard from
each team leader. They all said "we'll be back," and the representative
of the Palos Verde High School team seemed really proud that after
their 'bot had hit the wall, it had BACKED UP!
We also found out that some of the groups that hadn't made it into the
race had banded together and formed the International Robot Racing Federation,
( www.irrf.org )
and they are planning their own raced in the fall of 2004, near Las
Vegas. I hope to be there.
There was an after party in Dr. Dave's suite upstairs, we finally
got our Synergy Strike Force hats and t-shirts, and then it was back to
Barstow for Bob & I.
The next morning we packed up and headed home. When I reached my own
driveway I'd logged 1,100 miles on the mini-van.
* * * * * *
"It was a special moment."
-- iRobot CEO Colin Angle, 4/13/04
on being told of the first robot
casualty in Iraq
( edition.cnn.com/2004/TECH/04/12/tech.arms.robots.reut/index.html )
A few weeks later I was sharing my adventures with my friend Phil P.,
who works at the Neurosciences Institute.
( www.nsi.edu )
This is the institute founded by Dr. Gerald Edelman, a world-class
researcher into both consciousness and robotics. His latest book is
"A Universe of Consciousness: How Matter Becomes Imagination" (2001)
by Gerald M. Edelman and Giulio Tonomi.
( www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/0465013775/hip-20 )
Phil told my that NSI has built a robot onto a Segway chassis, and
is entering it in a robot soccer match, which is also sponsored by DARPA,
as part of their Mobile Autonomous Robot Software (MARS) program.
( news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/technology/3486335.stm )
Each time consists of a human on a Segway and a robot built onto
a Segway base. Both players must be involved in scoring (as in some
coed sports). Phil said their biggest competitors were from Carnegie
Mellon University. (Sound familiar?) The difference between their
approaches was that the CMU robot was programmed, while the NSI robot
was trained. As Phil put it, "Our robot doesn't know how to play
soccer, it just knows that it likes to play soccer." He told me how
when it's time to recharge the 'bot, instead of hacking some special
mode for it to return to the charger, they just hold out a soccer ball,
and robot follows it wherever it's lead.
* * * * * *
"We don't serve their kind here! ... Your droids. They'll have
to wait outside."
-- Mos Eisley cantina bartender in "Star Wars"
In pondering the lessons of the robot races I have come to this
conclusion. We'll get a lot more "bang per buck" from our robots
if we have Robot Wranglers, to put out the fires, untangle the
barbed wire, perform field repairs, take over and tele-operate
through the dangerous parts, and so on. In peacetime, a wrangler
might ride a motorcycle, leaving it to the 'bots to carry the heavy
tools and spare parts. In wartime, the human becomes a weak link,
so they may have to play a "shell game," and hide in a robotic
vehicle. But it is clear to me that 100 robots and one human will
always beat 100 robots alone.
* * * * * *
So, to summarize: the future of so-called "coin-operated" amusements
will, in fact, involve few coins, and the future of so-called
"autonomous vehicles" will, in fact, not be very autonomous.
Errata: In some versions of last month's e-ZIne I referred to a friend
as Will W.; he's really Will A. C3M regrets the error.
Addendum: An insightful and in-depth analysis of the SPAx (where x=M)
problem, and the futility of content-based filtering, appears on the web
site of Colin Fahey.
( www.colinfahey.com/spam_topics/spam_the_phenomenon.htm )
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Copyright 2004 by Alan B. Scrivener