It started at the party following the event in Yamaguchi last year.
"Mr. Ishikawa, would you like to hold a Hebocon in the Bay Area?"
I don't really remember how I responded then. I may have said "yes, let's go!" without giving it much thought, or I may have waffled and said something like "wow, that would be nice."
Either way, I hadn't really thought about it much.
And now it's nine months later. One of my colleague Chikako, Yuko from Maker Faire Tokyo (MFT) and I. The three of us stepped foot on the West Coast of the United States.
We really came!!
So This is the American Dream
Let me get into the details later. First just look at the crowd!!
There were about three layers of people around the ring.
This time, they had to make the robots right then and there and have them fight against each other. The work area was full as well.
Mass production of low-tech robots
Children enthralled by the the match's progress
The group photograph is such a great memory!
The cheers and reactions during the tournament were very American and five times as loud as in Japan. And amongst the cheers, "heboi" coming from everyone's mouth. (“Heboi” means clumsy.)
The tournament was held three times a day. I had the pleasure of commenting at the beginning of each as the founder of Hebocon, and asked the audience to remember the expression, "heboi".
That was when "heboi" was elevated to the status of a global expression following such words as "umami" and "karaoke".
The Bay Area is a Holy Land
Let's get back to the story. We went to the United States to hold Hebocon. So let's start with the background.
Hebocon is a "robot competition for people who are not savvy with technology" that I started in Japan two years ago. It is a battle of robots where people who don't have the technological acumen to make robots bring the junk that they create to fight against each other.
And this time, we went to Maker Faire Bay Area (MFBA). We participate in MFT every year, but this one is the high command of all Maker Faires held in more than 130 locations around the world each year.
When we set foot on the Holy Land (actually, just the registration tent for participants)
Thanks to the invitation by everyone at the MFT organizers, we had the pleasure of holding Hebocon at MFBA. The plan was to Introduce Japanese Maker culture to the home of Maker Faire. It was a collaborative exhibit with MFT, so we were able to work together to prepare and manage the event. My appreciation gauge was at its maximum for this unbelievably fabulous opportunity.
What It Means to Hold an Event Abroad
It was about three months ago that the decision to enter was actually made, and we began to seriously prepare for it.
Not to toot my own horn, but I am quite experienced in holding Hebocons by now. I've held almost ten of them. I have in my head highly efficient procedures for everything from the schedule, items to prepare, and things to confirm with the site.
Little did I know that holding one abroad would be so different.
Even though I had the best partner imaginable in the MFT organizers, preparations proved difficult.
About 20,000 JPY worth of 100-yen store products stripped of their packages to lighten the weight and stuffed tightly into boxes for shipment (material to build robots with)
The photo I posted on Facebook with the comment that we made T-shirts and banners looks like it's in a jungle. It was 4 a.m. during the middle of the Golden Week vacation period. I was beyond confused and at the unhinged stage.
Even just sending a box meant 10,000 JPY (100JPY = 1USD) in postage. So it was necessary to carefully select which items to bring from Japan, which to acquire on site, and which to order from other countries.
But once I decided what needed to be sent, I didn't even know how to write the shipping slips.
I also had an incident where I ordered a large quantity of toys as material from a Chinese online shopping site, but had to re-order them because they got sent by sea.
A large quantity of toys arrived at our local staff's house two weeks after the event...
When I held the events in Yamagata and Fukuoka, which were both far away too, I was so relaxed I was practically humming! National borders have great capacity to divide.
On top of it all, this was my first trip to the United States. I needed to prepare for my travels, and wanted to study some English, if a bit late. During the three weeks before the event, Chikako and I were in a state best described as "panic stricken".
The two of us annoyingly asking what SIM to buy in the US on a chat site for all of organizers
Merrymaking in the United States in Seven Pictures
All that craziness was till three days before departure. (Nothing sent after that would arrive in time.)
After that, I busied myself buying things like a travel toothbrush and brush-pens that I heard Americans like, and it was time to leave.
It's finally time to leave.
United Airlines. With narrow seats and outlets that don't charge, it was a flight fit for Hebocon.
Everything I saw in the US was so new to me, if I'm not careful, I'll end up writing three pages before getting to the site. To stifle that urge, I've represented my excitement from the trip in seven photographs. Let me just post these before getting into the main story.
My first meal in the US. Kind of similar to what we call taco-rice in Japan.
Cargo all seems to travel on trailers in the US, and they are all huge.
Random photographs taken from the car all look very American
The hotel had water with different fruit in it everyday, which I looked forward to, but they were cucumbers on the last day
Near the site at night. With no tall buildings around, the sky is vast!
I got so excited by the loose olives for sale, I ended up buying them as souvenirs, even though they weren't a local specialty. In fact, I bought the canned ones as I was scared they'd leak.
The meat I had at the post-event party. it was the size of a grown person's face.
I'm repeating myself, but all the scenery was really new to me.
And this was not only when I was outside, but also on the MFBA site. It was filled with people and things I'd never seen before.
These sort of things are not just props, and can be found moving around everywhere.
A sigh coupled with the comment, "I've never seen anything like this"
I went to the US for the event this time, and spent about 95% of my time, except when sleeping and eating, at the event site.
I hardly had the time to stroll or go sightseeing, but it was truly a "journey" in the sense that I was able to experience things I'd never experienced before and expand my horizons.
The Birth of a New Star
And finally, to Hebocon. We arrived on the set up day the day before the event began. We have until noon the next day to set up. During that time, we...
Made trophies with empty boxes we brought from Japan
Added paper to the nice banner we had made and made it more "hebo" (clumsy)
We ran out of tape for the letters on the floor and had to change colors
Amidst all this, somehow Chikako had the time to make this sample robot
When switched on, the eyes on the dog on the right turn green, and the dog moves forward while barking
This dog was a great hit! It was our mascot for three days and brought many passers-by into the Hebocon booth.
We had children shouting "soooooo cute!" and crouching down to sit with their legs tucked underneath to see it
And they kept sitting there
It was not only this girls. Children kept coming, sitting with their legs tucked underneath saying "sooooo cute!", and moving on. I thought that style of sitting was unique to Japan (called as “Seiza”. it’s really formal posture), but it was a discovery to learn that American children sit the same way when they get excited!
The event opened in the afternoon on the first day. It was called education day, so only people involved with education could enter. So the plan was for Hebocon to start the next day. We were expecting a relatively relaxed day of showing some video and passing out flyers. However...
It's supposed to start tomorrow, but the children keep coming
Somehow we ended up saying yes to questions like "can I make one?", and "is it okay to make one?"
A car covered in clay and decorated with glitter poms
A novel robot consisting (just) of a mouse with a piece of wood-patterned origami pasted on
We found a stick that's not really even a robot (but is still the most fantastic stick) left on the site
Such desire and creativity. We were all worried whether we'd get participants, but this made us confident the event would succeed.
The school bus the children came on was incredibly long
And Thus the Start: Hebocon US
On the next day, the second day of the event, we opened up registration for participation and officially began!
At this point, our wonderful local volunteers joined in. Thank you so much!! (The photo was taken after closing on the last day)
It appears that participatory events are even more popular at MFBA than at MFT, so the quota for participants was filled in no time.
And with the matches coming up, robot production becomes even more serious.
A brave soul uses a bunch of toothpicks taped together
The robots kept multiplying before our eyes
The purple rabbit is sitting on top of a box that we packaged the audio equipment in. The participants were so eager that anything valuable had to be hidden lest it be commandeered as material.
Our staff also got the robot-making bug so we kept getting more and more sample robots
Children leave quite interesting edges after cutting tape off
The participants were all incredibly eager. This was a place where things got created at an incredible pace.
Amidst all the excitement, we held a total of six tournaments over two days. I'd like to introduce my findings from that experience one by one on the next page.
The Girls Were Amazing
Usually, about half the participants at MFT are children, but at MFBA, a majority of the participants seemed to be elementary school age children.
You can see now that the front row during the matches is dominated by children
The group photo taken after a tournament. This time, it was all children.
In Japan, most of the children who want to participate are boys, but in the US, there were more girls.
It was also notable that if you leave goggles with the materials, everyone puts them on before starting work.
Everyone may have been an exaggeration. But the two in the middle are wearing goggles, aren't they?
I felt that these kids must use tools and make things on a regular basis either at home or at school. It really is the country of DIY. It's a difference in national character that Hebocon revealed.
Adhesion by Tape
This is the easiest and messiest way for a clumsy person to stick things together. Use tape, not glue.
Tie it with string, then tape over it
Glittered tape is decorative as well
Use tape for the wiring too
Hebocon is an event to "proactively enjoy your clumsiness." I explained this, but my English isn't very good and the children didn't seem to be listening, so I wasn't sure I got the message across.
Still, it was wonderful that the taste in robots was just like any other Hebocon. Hebo truly is something that crosses borders and language.
String and Table Pounding Are the Trend
Hebocon basically adopts the rules of Sumo wrestling, so you win when you push your opponent out or topple him. However, we had limited material this time and cheap toys tend to have weak power, so we had many tournaments that came to a standstill with the opponents pushing against each other. This lead to a natural tendency to use strings.
Skillfully administering the string to goad the opponent
It's becoming standard equipment
It had been acceptable from before to use string to retreat the robot. However, this time, the use of string escalated to elevating the robot to make the opponent fall over. We had a case where the facilitator had to shout "no lift!"
Another strategy that was invented was to bang on the table to release a deadlock.
Initially, it was just banging once when the robots didn't move, but gradually it became "normal to bang." The Japanese volunteers said it was like paper sumo.
*Paper sumo is a Japanese game. Origami sumo wrestlers are put on a base and controlled through the vibration of banging.
Anything With a Form Must Be Taken Apart. Take It Apart Then Think of the Uses.
Another trend that was different from Japan was that everyone started by taking things apart.
In Japan, it is common to take an electric toy or Tamiya kit as the base and create a robot by adding functions and decorations.
But it's different in the US. If they see a moving toy, they start by taking it apart.
An electric mouse is split in two, and the top and bottom halves used separately
The controller that is raised skyward has all the cords cut off, and the train has its windows smashed and another motor loaded on. Gutsy.
All kinds of things are taken apart, then put back together
They dislodged the handle from a hammer and used it. How on earth did they do that?
Overflowing creativity. Initially, I was simply impressed that this is indeed the home of DIY.
However, I had no idea that it would eventually challenge the operation of the event.
A Serious Shortage of Material
Since Hebocon is an event for people who are not technologically savvy, robots are not made from scratch. They are basically alterations on mass-produced electric toys.
Therefore, the toys that become the material are indispensable.
We'd secured a fair amount from Japanese 100-yen stores and Chinese online stores, but it still wasn't enough. So we asked that toys that had already been used be recycled.
A workspace that seems to be of "wreckage"
It became difficult to re-use material because everyone was taking the toys apart, leading to a serious shortage of material.
We had no choice but to limit the use of material to one electric item per person on the second day, and to limit participation in the sixth tournament, by which time we were really short on materials, to adults.
Initially, elaborate robots such as this one using a rich array of resources were being built, but...
In the last tournament, a machine that was fashioned out of limited material. Just looking at it makes one want to cry. This was the moment the Japanese aesthetic of "wabi-sabi" was naturally formed in the US.
So that's how six tournaments were held, and Hebocon Bay Area closed before we knew it.
On the next page, I plan to introduce some of the robots, but before I do so, I'd like to leave the tournament for awhile and talk a little about my personal experiences.
Facing the World
I thought I had come to "The United States" to hold a Hebocon, but to my surprise, I was faced with "The World".
Maker Faires are held in more than 130 locations around the world, and MFBA, where we exhibited this time, is the original Maker Faire - it's high command, and the world's largest.
So it's like the Holy Land, and a place where people who love to make things gather, not only from the US, but from around the world.
Hebocon is an event I started two years ago, and now it's held in about 25 countries around the world. The overseas events are held by local organizers, and I coordinate them all. When I say coordinate, my interaction with overseas events is basically just communication in broken English through Facebook messenger (I did go to see an event in Hong Kong once. That was really fun too.) We communicate by chat, and when the event is over, they show me photos and videos. That's it. So to tell the truth, it didn't feel that real to me that Hebocon had spread globally.
But when I was managing Hebocon at MFBA, a lot of people came up to me. People who said they've seen Hebcon videos on the Internet; people who participated in overseas Hebocon; and I was even able to meet a few organizers who held the overseas Hebocons.
Exchanging T-shirts with an organizer from Munich
Until now, I'd see videos of successful Hebocons abroad and think "wow, looks like some serious activity going on there" - as if it didn't have that much to do with me. They'd all be talking in a language I couldn't understand in a place I'd never been to, and even the cheers sounded a bit unfamiliar. It felt like something out of a movie.
But once I got here, suddenly these people are right in front of me, wanting to shake my hands, and even saying something like "thank you for coming up with such fabulous fun." Of course, they are talking animatedly in English, so I only understand about half of what they are saying, but I do recognize that they are talking passionately about Hebocon. The people in front of me came from another continent and speaks a totally different language, but still loves Hebocon.
At the back on the right is David, who started Hebocon in Valencia. He is also one of the founders of the open-source electronics platform, Arduino.
This is when I finally realized what was going on around the world and felt goosebumps all over my body. There are people like this, probably thousands of them, all over the world, and they've experienced the same pleasure through an event called Hebocon. Even if we don't speak the same language, we all saw the same clumsy robots and laughed.
I did know this at a cerebral level, so I don't have any new comments or anything. But there was a shock. I was really, really shocked. The best way to express what I felt is probably "oh awesome"!
The world. Awesome.
That was the sentiment I brought back from the US.
Announcing the Tournament Results
From here, I'm going to introduce the winner robot in each tournament, as well as the one that was voted "the most low-tech robot". I should note and apologies that the robot datasheet that I had asked everyone to fill out at the event hasn't arrived as of writing, so the information is a little spotty. It's a particular benefit of the event from an administrative standpoint that these kinds of errors can be chalked up to the fact that it is, after all, Hebocon.
Participants in the first tournament
The WInner: HEDGEHOG Won by deftly using string to control the movements of a robot built on a car that moves randomly. Visually, it speaks to the abundance of material earlier in the event.
Most Heboi Award: Sparkle In addition to the cuteness of the unicorn, it was recognized for the nonsensical use of two frameworks underneath it. Also amazing that it was made by a four-year-old girl.
Participants in the second tournament
The Winner: Pooper Scooper At the back of the photograph. A robot with a dust pan attached to the front of a car. A Pooper Scooper is a tool to pick up dog waste.
Most Heboi Award: Mouse Rat A young adult took this award ahead of the children. Awarded for ditching the ability to move by attaching arms (?) to the rotating motor that originally had tires on them.
Participants in the third tournament.
The Winner: MATTEO As explained before, many tournaments came to a deadlock due to a lack of power. So the speedy body that could quickly enter the opponent's territory was powerful. (There is a rule that when time runs out, the robot that has travelled the most wins.)
Most Heboi Award: JOAQIN Recognized for the choice of a car that moves randomly as the base, which meant that it kept going out of the ring itself regardless of how many times it was put back in.
Participants in the fourth tournament
The Winner: Copper Head Won thanks to its multiple strategies consisting of flipping up with a turner and adjusting the metal sticking out to the sides depending on the opponent.
Most Heboi Award: The Oracle-bot A body with a high center of gravity that obviously has bad balance. Won for falling over as soon as the hands holding it up were taken away.
Participants in the fifth tournament
The Winner: Spider On the right. You would have thought it would attack with speed, but it actually used a complex strategy of diverting the opponent's course with the two front fangs.
Most Heboi Award: Queen Glacier Met the Spider in the first match and awarded for cutely spinning around stuck between the Spider's fangs.
Participants in the sixth tournament
The Winner: Galaxy Express The silver robot in the middle. This robot, which calls Yoda to mind, won thanks to its opponent's incredible weakness and mistakes. Must be the power of the Force.
Most Heboi Award: Mire A robot that was particularly skimpy, even in the last tournament that was troubled by a lack of resources. It's meant to move through the vibration created by tape attached to the tip of the motor, but every time the switch was turned on, the tape would fly off so that the match was re-started about five times.
It was a fantastic event where I was able to experience two seemingly contradictory phenomena of the amazingly high DIY skills in the US, and all the robots that still came out heboi.
And as I wrote at the beginning, I was thrilled that everyone learned the concept of "heboi", accepted it as a positive concept, and thoroughly enjoyed it.
Nothing could be better.
I was incredibly tired, but it was also an incredible four days. I could go on writing forever, so I will put my remaining enthusiasm into a cry. Yeah!!!
I also received a "Make: Editor's Choice" ribbon given to particularly good exhibits. Yeah!
The last photograph we took when we returned to Narita. To the right is Yuko of the Maker Faire Tokyo organizer who took care of everything regarding the exhibit and travel. You must have been absolutely exhausted. Thank you so much. And thank you to Mr. Tamura, who invited us to the Bay Area, all the local volunteers who helped us, our staff in the US. Thank you all very much!!!!