Robot competition – Day 2 in Taiwan

From the Boston Globe article on the Picklejar Heads

Thumbnail image for Kaohsiung 2010 practice run.jpg

Last week, eight Lexington students and ten parents headed to Kaohsiung, Taiwan for an international robot competition. Here is John D. Donahue’s recap of the second and final day of the competition.

The second and final day of the Open International Championship got underway early in the morning as technicians fired up the arena’s sound system. The Lexington parents could not help noticing that the sound track featured a great deal of X-rated rap, blessedly unintelligible to most of the other attendees including, without doubt, the Taiwanese hosts.

Three engaging Kaohsiung college students had been assigned as translators and general helpmates to the Lexington team. During a lull in the action, at the team’s request, they joined forces to translate “Battery-Powered Picklejar Heads” into Mandarin, requiring about a dozen ideograms to pull it off.

The lulls were few, however, as the second day’s pace proved even faster than the first. The 64 teams settled down to a grueling series of technical judging and robot runs. Most of the runs were in the range one would see at a state championship—below 300 out of a possible 400—but quite a few teams racked up at least one perfect score amid their three official runs. And three teams had perfect scores on all three runs. The Lexington team, unfortunately, was not among them, losing ten points on the second run when a part fell off the robot and knocked down a wall on the playing field. In previous settings their three scores of 400, 390, and 400 would have set records, but this was the big time.

The judges decided that there would be an elimination round among the three perfect teams, with the fastest time to a perfect score winning the robot-performance trophy. One of the three teams was from Israel, one from the People’s Republic, and one from Taiwan. (Having the PRC and Taiwan go toe-to-toe for the gold put a little strain on that old geeky bonhomie, and it was just as well that there was no perfect Saudi team to square off against the Israelis.) As the decibel level in the arena reached a crescendo, the Taiwan team’s robot finished a perfect run in less than a minute and a half, edging out the other finalists. And the home-town crowd went wild.

All of the teams were whisked away to line up for the closing ceremony, and the parents sent to the grandstands. The Chinese and Western orchestras returned to reprise their musical tag-team. And the roboteers entered from the wings to march across the stage, in alphabetical order by country. With “United States” coming late in the alphabet the American teams had to endure a longish wait in 95-degree heat in the outdoor staging area.

In a robot-contest tradition, every member of every team received a “participant medal.” And all of the judges lined up on stage to form a high-fiving gauntlet to celebrate every roboteer. Once the last judge had high-fived the last kid and the last award had been given, the music ebbed and the parents were free to join their kids on the arena floor.

The Lexington parents approached the team with some concern. Would they be disappointed? They were used to winning, after all, and had gotten miles better in the months since acing the state championship. The parents surrounded the kids to get their thoughts. One the one hand: Some of the other robots perhaps showed a hint of the direct adult involvement that the Lexington coaches (Kevin Oye, Paul Perry, and Mark Ramseyer) so scrupulously avoided. On the other hand: The Taiwanese had been terrific hosts, and it was kind of nice to see the home team win. And on the third hand: Let’s go swimming!

Two hours splashing and yelling in the hotel pool. Then dinner at a food court that had something for everyone—Chinese, Japanese, and Korean cuisine, along with American chain-store burgers and ice cream. Then a visit to one of the famous Taiwanese “night markets,” a sensible innovation for shopping and grazing while avoiding the murderous daytime temperatures and humidity. Then up at dawn for 28 hours of travel, an uninterrupted occasion for computer games, airplane entertainment systems, and goofing around together. For the Battery-Powered Picklejar Heads of Lexington, it just doesn’t get any better than that.

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