History of Androbot Inc

From Archive of Vintage Robotics & Technology Companies

Androbot Logo

Androbot, Inc. was a personal robotics company founded by Atari co-founder Nolan Bushnell.

It would release the Topo line of robots to programming hobbyists to moderate success, but would fail to get its other projects to market, and eventually would succumb to its debt. Axlon, Inc. would be its successor, focusing on toy robotics with great success.

Beginnings at Catalyst Technologies[edit | edit source]

The story begins in 1981, just a few years after Nolan Bushnell created Pizza Time Theatre. By now the company was doing well, and Nolan began relaxing on his executive oversight to begin new projects. He started Catalyst Technologies as one of the first venture capital groups for tech startups, though most funded projects came exclusively from Nolan and his team. By the first year, it was already funding around 10 technology firms, reaching around 20 later at the company’s peak.[1]

Androbot Inc[edit | edit source]

As a response to the cultural demand for personal robots sparked by the original Star Wars, Nolan would begin the concepts of a consumer focused robotics company in 1982. This kicked off Androbot Inc and its first set of hires. On October 7th of that year, Nolan would ask Doug Jones, the head designer, if he could make 25 robots in time for the Consumer Electronics Show on January 6, 1983. Doug agreed- as long as things were done his way, and production of the first prototypes commenced.[2]

Androman & Fred[edit | edit source]

At the same time, Nolan signed a $3 million dollar contract with Western Technologies for them to produce a small robot that could play specialized games on the Atari 2600, whom would be named Androman. Another contact was signed with Smith Engineering for a small controllable robot named FRED.[3]

Azza[edit | edit source]

The first robot designed in-house was Azza, a simple radio controlled robot made out of cardboard and resin. This would be the first iteration of the iconic Topo drive mechanism, having two wheels set at an angle and made bottom heavy to keep itself balanced. It seems this early build also had a manually adjustable head.

Topo & Bob Prototypes[edit | edit source]

After this, Doug and his team would begin the proper robot. During the stressful 50 days of work, they would attend Think Tank sessions on the ethics of robotics and the company’s responsibility as a pioneer.[4] Despite robots like the HERO 1 already being out for a few years, Androbot was shooting for true household assistants that needed to be safe. The style of robots were made to look friendly, but not organic, being described as a “faceted version of a six-year old”.

During production, it was realized that the aspirations of the team was making the robot reach outside of the consumer price point. It was decided to split the product into a high end and low end model. The high end Robot, the collective desires and dreams of all the workers at Androbot, would be named BOB, for “Brains on Board”. The lower end model, there to get a product out quickly and to test market demand, would be named Topo.

Topo, not equipped with any of the sensors or computational power to work on its own, would be used as an opportunity for educators and programmers to create their own software for control. Software called TopoBASIC would be created for the Apple II computer as a means to interface with Topo. This software wouldn’t have any interface, and instead was a layer of registers and commands that users could create BASIC programs to connect with Topo. A radio controller would connect to the Apple II and wirelessly ping Topo to move each motor.

BOB would be able to store logic internally and process decisions by its multitude of sonic sensors. It also had a heat detector under its face mesh to detect people and move towards them. It would carry two Intel 8086 processors and 3mb of RAM, having its own operating system. Planned expandability, voice recognition, and speech would be experimented with as well.

Leading up to CES[edit | edit source]

As December rolled around, the robots were entering the final stages for the show. More finalized hardware was installed, but it was still a rushed prototype for CES. 15 of these would be ready to present at the show, coming in three colors.[2]

But while working units could be on the show floor, it was requested a proper demonstration be done with Nolan himself. He wanted one of the bots to get him a beer on stage. This was one of Nolan's dream for a pet robot, as before Androbot he worked with Cyan Engineering to create a little robot project called Kermit that was to try and reach the same goal.[5]

Despite the workers best efforts, the robot couldn’t get the job done. The day before the show, engineers were staying up all night trying to make it work. By this point they had made shirts for themselves labeled “1-6-83, or Bust”.

CES January 1983[edit | edit source]

CES was now here. The showroom was packed with investors and press excited for the unveiling. The audience waited anxiously for the robot on stage to move. As Nolan took the stage, he asked the robot to fetch him something. With great relief, the robot wheeled out, collected a beer, and brought it to him. Larry Calof, Catalyst’s President at the time, stated “the place went absolutely nuts”.[1][6][7][8]

After CES[edit | edit source]

After the great unveiling, work would be set on the two robots. Topo would be prepared and developed for launch in a few months, while BOB continued to be experimented with as the high end model.

BOB would go through a few design changes and prototypes throughout the early months of 1983. The next model after CES would gain a belt of silver decals, the removal of his front light panel, and additional lights put on his body. This one would be heavily used in marketing images for years to come. A little later, a version with a black face mesh would appear, which would be the iconic look going forward. Topo would also see the final design changes applied, having a similar silver belt and black mesh, though district by the lack of golden sonar eyes.

Kaleidoscope[edit | edit source]

By March, Topo would already be set to have a cameo in one of Nolan’s previous endeavors. Pizza Time Theatre would open a new company called Kaleidoscope to create animated cartoons starring Chuck E. Cheese. This company would be the first to create digital animation software, capable of the same feats as traditional- without the ink. One of the key characters in their first film would be an unnamed set of robots barring the look of a Grey Topo. Integration of Androbot products into Pizza Time Theatre was only just starting.

Topo II Prototype[edit | edit source]

In April, Topo would begin mass production as the launch window drew near. Engineers would already begin working on the next version of Topo in anticipation. Topo II would gain the ability to speak using a voice synthesizer chip. The earliest of these ideas can be seen from the Disney Channel TV show Imagine.[9] Its clear the voice is crude and simply overlaid on top of the footage. Its also seen that the programmers were experimenting with the Apple Voice Input Module software created by Voice Machine Communications. This would let them speak commands for Topo to follow. Sadly nothing would come of this experiment for future releases. At the end of the footage however, the first shell for a proper Topo II can be spotted, which at this point had a black speaker mesh under the chin.[10]

Topo I Launch[edit | edit source]

By early May Topo I would be ready to launch[11], just nearly making it by the deadline.

650 units were made to start, at an asking price of $495. Advertisements to dealers began appearing throughout the month, with Androbot claiming Topo II would be ready the next month in June.

As units headed out to stores however, the launch sales were abysmal.[12] Dealers would order multiple units, yet would barely be able to sell one. Stores selling to schools would have a better time, though as the months rolled by most realized schools were their only potential buyer. Six months in, only 125 units had been sold.[13]

After Launch[edit | edit source]

They began finding ways to promote Topo I using their abundance of spare units. First was offering an unknown amount of Topos in the “Smile America, Spell Chuck E. Cheese” sweepstakes for Pizza Time Theatre on June 6th.

Next was sending Topos out to Atari Computer Camps, which were 8 week camps teaching kids how to program in LOGO. Topo would arrive in centers across 6 states to be integrated into the program.

A variation of Atari Computer Camps, called Chuck E Cheese’s Computer Learning Center, would debut at the 3 story Pizza Time Theatre in San Jose with a Topo of its own. This robot still lives in the store’s attic to this day.

CES June 1983[edit | edit source]

The next CES was already around the corner in Chicago. Androbot would take this opportunity to publicly present FRED from Smith Engineering to consumers. FRED would essentially be a tiny Topo, being controllable by a joystick or a program. He also had voice capabilities like the upcoming Topo II, and could relay information back to the computer. His main trick was a special pen holder, where you could program patterns for him to draw out on the sheet below him.[14][15][16]

Despite not making it to the show, Androman from Western Technologies would debut in one of the four brochures from the event.[17] His function was to move around a special game mat and scan colored pieces dotted along it. This would relay information back to the Atari console for the gameplay. Three games were in development at this time, Androman on the Moon, a version of Clue, and an unknown third game. The Androman seen in the brochure was actually a fake hollow shell, as the real Androman was still in production. Later on he would look closer to this.

BOB would also make an appearance at the show in his most recent prototype, now with a proper BOB sticker on his front. Topo II would not make an appearance, but would be mentioned in the Topo brochure as an addon text to speech version of the Robot. At this point he had now been given a red glass top to his head in the prototype.[18]

Debt[edit | edit source]

After CES, Topo II would not hit its June release date, disappointing retailers. The robot's complexity began to expand outside its initial talking capability. Androbot would reschedule the launch for September of that year.[19][13]

Bushnell had a rule for his Catalyst companies to not sink any more than $300,000 into a project, but his passion with Androbot had already crossed that limit. By then the company had already racked up $3 million in losses.[20] It was decided to put Androbot up for public stock offerings to gain funding. Just before the auction happened however, the high-tech market collapsed. The company had to pull from going public, and instead find willing investors to keep it afloat.[21][22]

International Deals[edit | edit source]

By November of 1983, Androbot would make exclusivity deals with two companies for international distribution in their respective countries. That being a company in the UK called Prism Consumer Products[23], and a company in Australia called Futuretronics Australia Pty Ltd.[24]. Futuretronics would immediately begin selling Topo I units in the region, while Prism would wait for the release of Topo II.

Topo II Launch[edit | edit source]

Progress on BOB would halt as Topo II now got ready for launch. By this point a few more changes would occur. The red and green lights of the feet would be replaced with amber ones, and the top of the head would now become a controller. The side buttons would make Topo II spin, while the others made him go forward and back.

Near launch, his silver stickers would be replaced with black ones, making him now very distinct from his earlier counterpart. The software also changed, going from TopoBasic to TopoSoft. TopoSoft used a custom version of the Fourth programming language, which was nicknamed TopoFourth, and later the Androbot Control Language. Topo II would also now use an IR transmitter rather than through radio.

Launch[edit | edit source]

Topo II would launch within late November to early December at $1000.[25][26] This first run, which seems to have been around 500 units, would have a special gold plaque on their front giving their production number alongside Nolan's signature.[27] Topo I was still marketed to consumers as "Topo", while Topo II was called "Topo w/ Sound". Both units seemed to fair better with this launch, though sales numbers become very vague by this point. At least several hundred had sold within this period.

The Christmas that Almost Wasn't[edit | edit source]

Back at Kaleidoscope, Topo would finally make his guest appearance in the Chuck E. Cheese cartoon entitled "The Christmas that Almost Wasn't". Sadly, due to all of Nolan's financial issues, the final product had to be rushed. The animation was so cut down it was basically colored storyboards, which ruined the potential to showcase the technology. In an interesting turn, Kaleidoscope and its software was sold to Lucasfilm later on and became the computer division of the company. The employees of that division would make a corporate spin-off in 1986 to form Pixar.[28][29]

International Topo II Release[edit | edit source]

By 1984 Prism Consumer Products would begin to sell Topo II units. The initial launch would just include the Apple II software, but plans were made to have versions ready later on for the BBC Micro and ZX Spectrum. A Commodore 64 release for both countries would also be worked on by Prism.[23][30][31][32]

In February of 1984, a Topo II would appear as the winning prize of a graphics drawing contest in the Sinclair User magazine. The UK Topo would use a Topo I body with a Topo II head, having the speaker mesh cut out in the lower chest- with the Prism logo placed on it. Paul Dowthwaite would ultimately win the prize a few months later.[33][34][35][36]

Prism would launch Topo II in March, alongside promoting FRED to follow soon after, though it is unclear how many units were made and sold.[37][38][39][40][41] Another version of the UK Topo II can be seen later in June with a proper full Topo II body, but this time with a large 'PRISM' print on his front[42]

Futuretronics would also sell Topo II units sometime in 1984[43], alongside running the Heinz Win A Real Robot Competition for two Topo II units.

Kodak Contract / BOB XA[edit | edit source]

Back to earlier in the year both companies would begin planning on accessories for Topo to use in factory work, such as a barcode scanner, a bump detector, or an arm. This project would lead into a contract with Kodak- planning to produce 75 robots capable of delivering parts on an assembly line.[23] Androbot would decide to move the stagnant and unreleased BOB project in this direction, naming the new bot BOB/XA, for Expandable Androbot. BOB X/A would replace the unique body shells for a black box with standard wheels. Most internal things from the original BOB would still carry over, such as its Intel processor and dual software programs. An AndroLift would be designed for it to lift objects from the front, alongside a barcode scanner for detecting objects.

IPRC[edit | edit source]

Androbot would plan to be at the First International Personal Robot Congress & Exposition on April 13th of that year, where they planned to show off Topo II, Fred, and BOB/XA. To fit BOB in with the Androbot style, a custom bot for the showcase would be made with a grafted on Topo I head and sonar eyes.[44][45] This special bot has since been nicknamed Bowtie BOB. Even two years in, the grabbing beer trick was still being shown, though now with the ability to lift a six-pack on a stool. Nolan also attended the event as a speaker for the "Future of Personal Robots" panel.[46] Many other interesting robots were showcased at the event, which may become subjects of future videos. Bowtie Bob would continue to make appearances in photos of the headquarters, where he would go through a few changes such as the removal of his sonar eyes, an added drink tray, and eventually a button layout on the head.

BOB/XA Fallout[edit | edit source]

During BOB X/A's production however, the engineers could not get him to work within Kodak's spec for the contract, and the deal was cancelled. The company would have to pay $80,000 for a patent infringement regarding the canted drive system for Topo.[47] Around the same time, it was discovered that the Marketing Department had not been returning calls for two whole months, resulting in zero sales. After firing the marketing manager and fixing the problem, still no sales happened for another four months.[48]

Purchase[edit | edit source]

In June, Sysorex, one of Androbot's original financiers, would give an undisclosed amount for a stake in the company, keeping it afloat for a while longer.[49][50]

Final Push[edit | edit source]

By August, the company would attempt a final push on BOB and TOPO. Throughout the year a Topo III had been created that was able to be assembled with two shells. Topo's fold out arms would also be replaced with slide-in trays for drinks and general items. Everything else was the same as Topo II, though now with an identifiable mark of four dots around the speaker. This version would still not be ready for production just yet, so BOB/XA was focused on instead.

This focus would also lead to the severing of Prism from receiving any more robots for overseas distribution. Prism would try to negotiate to manufacture its own Androbot products for the UK market, but this would fall through.[51]

BOB would be set to launch in September in two configurations for $2500 and $4000. While ads were sent out for potential buyers, the company was also looking for capital partners to invest in BOB's deployment, which already had various parts for around 700 units.

The only firm to respond would be Sanrio, which had its team fly over to California to tour the facilities. A BOB, presumably Bowtie BOB, was the group's guide who led them through the rooms while commenting about the company. Androbot employees were watching the tour on a CCTV with no sound. At one point BOB had to go down a long hallway, and due to an automatic idle sequence that would happen if BOB didn't speak, he began to whistle to bide the time. When this happened, all the Sanrio employees stopped, looked at each other- stunned, and stormed out of the building. Everyone watching the TV was clueless to what had happened.

Nolan later called the company together in the back parking lot to give a speech to the marketing department, explaining that if you have Japanese clients on tour, maybe don't whistle the tune to "The Bridge on the River Kwai".[52][53]

Fred Release[edit | edit source]

A short time later, Fred would finally make his debut on the market. 300 units would be produced, but only some managed to sell to interested schools. Prism would also offer an unknown amount of Fred's in the UK.[54]

Downsize[edit | edit source]

In November, after no sales of BOB/XA and short numbers from Fred, the employees would be assembled once again and told the company was folding.[53] 100 Employees would be reduced to 15, just enough to manage sales of Topo III and Fred. The company's recent fourth president, John Peers, would say- "We've got to get a dose of common sense into this business, the robots do so much. Why are we promising more?"

Only two developments remained by this point, Western Technologies Androman Project, and Doug Jones' vacuum robot project, akin to the modern day Roomba. [55]The first half of 1985 would have these projects continue while remaining stock attempted to be sold.

Death[edit | edit source]

Neither succeeded by that point, and Nolan listed the company for sale in New York Times.[56] A few parties were interested, but none went for the purchase. Nolan would keep the company name and copyrights, while selling the patents, hardware, software, and remaining stock on auction a few months later. By its death, it had racked in over $15 million in debt from Bushnell and his financiers.

Axlon[edit | edit source]

Despite Androbot's death, it had already taken another form months prior through Axlon, one of Nolan's defunct Pocket Terminal companies. Nolan continued his robotic work through smaller, more affordable toys, and was a hit.

Axlon's first new product was actually a complete rework of Fred- into Andy the Personality Robot. Andy would essentially be a miniaturized cheap Topo, being controllable by a joystick, as well as allowing user-made programs to let him move around.[57]

Axlon would continue to make even more famous toys like the Petster, alongside still prototyping with BOB/XA.

References[edit | edit source]

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