Welcome to the world championship of crappy robots

Seen the awesome worlds of Transformers and other hi-tech robots? Well, this is nothing like that.
Laughing child in front of robots at Hebocon
Hebocon is an event unlike any other © Hebocon
By Marc Prosser

The box of tissues hobbling forwards on its (symbolic?) ‘wheels’ (six mechanical dildos, in case you were wondering) probably never thought it would come to this at its debut at Hebocon.

Coming slowly towards it. Well, angling, more like. Or, to be perfectly honest, performing a lose imitation of a circle, an insect-like robot…well, actually a weird iPhone cover stuck to a set of wheels.

Trying to describe a Hebocon match is be a bit like trying to objectively describe a Monty Python sketch. It both fails to capture the essence and completely misses the point.

The point being that you’re witnessing the pinnacle of absolutely incredibly wonderfully atrociously nonsensically Dadaistic pinnacle of robots – and fun.

Something that you yourself can do at home, with friends, at Maker Faires and official Hebocon events. 

Hello Japan

Hebocon is, in case you hadn’t already guessed it, originally from Japan.

‘Heboi’ can be translated as ‘poor in quality/ability’, or simply as ‘crappy’. The 'con' stands for contest. Put it together, and you get a contest for crappy robots.

The rules are simple. (Usually) two robots enter, one wins. Usually by pushing the other robot over or out of the ring. How depends on what is often a surprising series of events – including for the people who have built the robots.

“Many times the robot do things different than you think. For example, one participant built a plastic propeller bird, but when he turned on the propellers at the start of the match, it went backwards straight out of the ring, instead of forwards,” Daiju Ishikawa, founder of Hebocon, says with a laugh.

This approach to design has led to feared and revered robots like The Peanut Giver from Hong Kong (special move: Peanut Flail. Also generously spreads peanuts around the ring), Pastabot from Spain (special move: Barbie Leg Kick, of course), Shoe-bot from Singapore, (Lego motors attached to a pair of new shoes that the nine-year-old creator had found out were too small) and The Airnator from Germany (special ability: whisking milk into speed…technical details: unclear).

© Hebocon

Four years of crappy conquest

Hebocon started in 2013 as an idea of celebrating the creations that hadn’t exactly been successful at the Tokyo Maker Faire. It bloomed into the concept of making a crappy robot competition.

The first ever Hebocon was held the year after.

“We thought it would be a few friends, but 80 people wanted to take part, so we had to install a first come first serve rule and find a different venue,” Ishikawa explains.

Here, four years later, there have been more than 60 competitions in over 25 countries, including a first ‘world championship’, held last year in Tokyo.

From the get-go, Hebocon established its unique appreciation of crappiness. For example, one entrant forgot her robot on the train, so decided to go and drink a beer instead of coming to the contest, tweeting a picture of said beer to the event organisers. A level of ‘hebo’ that was widely lauded and applauded.

The event was filmed, and took part in the Japan Media Art Festival, as well as uploaded onto YouTube where Hebocon quickly went viral.

Questions started flooding in about where the next Hebocon event was taking place, as well as what it was all about and how you could possibly arrange your own events.

© Hebocon

Zen of crap

The core concept of Hebocon, if one can talk about concept as such, is that building complex, highly functional robots is incredibly stressful and frustrating. Instead, you should try building a terrible robot in a creative way and then have it fight other, equally fantastically horribly designed robots.

Usually, the robots are limited to 50cm, but Ishikawa and his Hebocon collaborator, Chikako Koga, fondly remember the first, and so far only, Giga-Hebocon event where robots were up to three metres tall.

Koga and Ishikawa also work Daily Portal Z, a website that perhaps provides an insight into Hebocon.

Daily Portal Z features articles on things like eating fruit without peeling it first, the life of an Amazon box collector and an in-depth, investigative piece on how many different ways you can use English prepositions to describe a piece of cheese’s position in relation to a hamburger. (There are 30 different ways, in case you were wondering.)

“We try out maybe three or four ideas on the site every day. Some of them turn out good. Others not so good. It is about letting them live freely and seeing where they lead to,” Koga explains.

© Hebocon

Want to Hebocon? Here’s how

Start by reaching out to Hebocon through their official Facebook page. Ishikawa, Koga and co. will then send you a list of documents, including the official rulebook, a guide to organising a Hebocon event, logo files, etc. Next, ponder these pieces of Hebocon advice:

  • Make up for technical incompetence with strategy.
  • Do not let your guard down until the match is on.
  • Shame on you, winner; be proud, loser.
  • All failures are beautiful.
  • Praise the Heboiness of others.
  • Always enjoy Heboiness.

And this quote:

“A good look at a participating robot reveals the human weakness of its creator[…]This is another factor that makes Hebocon interesting. Observing the robots in Hebocon is like reading confessional literature. That’s why I always say “Hebocon is not engineering; it is literature.”

Finally, heed (or don’t – Hebocon are very pleased with you either way) the design advice Ishikawa gave IEEE Spectrum:

  • Try combinations that you would never do at work, like making a propeller with dried squid rather than plastic or metal.
  • Avoid technology that you’re familiar with. Do not use a soldering iron, or other tools.
  • Make it with your left hand (if you are right-handed).
  • Make it with your feet.
  • Leave the most important part to a five-year-old child to make it for you.
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