Battlebots: The next smash-hit geek sport?

Summary:The sport is attracting mostly a crowd of engineers, special effects experts and mechanics, who build robots weighing as much as 400 pounds and engage in combat.

Battlebot, billed as the next smash-hit geek sport, has launched a Web site featuring animation robots designed to, um, kick each other's bots.

The Web site seems ideal for the geek, macho crowd that can't afford to build giant steel machines with kill saws, pulverizers or ramrod spears. Instead, with a few clicks of the mouse, enthusiasts of the sport can paste together a virtual robot and engage in virtual combat.

"It's crazy how popular the sport is," said Deb McCain, spokeswoman for Iguana Studios, a New York-based Web design company that helped build the Battlebot site.

A key component of the virtual combat element involves an emerging animation technology called Scalable Vector Graphics (SVG), which is under recommendation by the World Wide Web Consortium to become a standard in online graphic designs.

According to backers of the standard, vector graphics are more flexible than other available animation technology, able to make computer images fit into any screen--from cell phone displays to monitors. SVG renders more easily because it is written in pure XML (Extensible Markup Language), a programming language that makes it as simple as tapping a computer key to exchange large amounts of information over the Web. Vector graphics can then easily move through tight bandwidth connections that typically choke on bulky files, such as animation.

SVG competes directly with Macromedia's Flash, which even designers at Iguana acknowledge has a big head start. The Battlebot project is the first commercial use of the technology, which is still in a "beta," or testing, phase.

"We were surprised at the level of animation that the plug-in could handle," said Christy Nicholson, producer of the site. "The real rivalry with Flash will come."

Serious competitions
Battlebot first hit the scene in 1999, after Robot Wars, a similar combat sport, folded.

The sport attracts mostly a crowd of engineers, special effects experts and mechanics who build robots weighing as much as 400 pounds that then are either reduced to tiny pieces of scrap metal after combat or emerge victorious.

First place winners get an extra-large aluminum lug nut as a trophy plus $6,000. Battlebot is gaining in popularity especially now that matches are aired on Comedy Central on Tuesdays at 10 p.m. EST/PST.

San Francisco carpenter Steve Felk has taken second place twice for his machine, dubbed Voltronic.

Felk, 48, built his 210-pound machine in the living room of his one-bedroom apartment and so far says he spent about $20,000 in parts and labor. Felk's machine is about 10 inches high and 30 inches long, shaped like a door wedge.

"It's a dense little guy that can destroy the competition with its sharp pointy nose," he said.

Technology companies are also jumping into the fray, sponsoring teams that design robots; in exchange, the creators wear T-shirts with company logos or slap stickers on the machines such as an Olympic track runner would advertise Nike or Adidas.

The next live match will take place May 24 in San Francisco.

Topics: Tech Industry

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