Robot Army : From Tupperware to 3D Printing

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When I moved back home from art school in Chicago, one of the biggest drags was no longer having access to the beefy machine shop that was down the street from my apartment. I went from playing with a room-sized lathe and mill to having little more than a $20 soldering iron and dremel at my disposal. It seemed my metal-cutting days were going to end as soon as they started… well enough, this didn’t stop me from making the things I wanted to. I just had to use plastic now instead. Luckily for me, plastic was in abundance at my parent’s house. My mom hordes take-out containers and tupperware, so I had a bottomless stash to carve up.

Still pursuing my vision of creating the field of robotic flowers, I was trying to refine the design of my ‘steam’ into something a bit more controllable. At some point I ran across a video of a small delta robot someone had made on the internet. As I watched it bob up and down in that special twitchy, impatient way… I fell in love. From that moment on I became obsessed with building my own!

Long story short… Everything became a potential shape. I-beams. They’re everywhere :

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I used a lot of crappy plastic hangers. They made great paddles to connect onto the servo horn like you see below :

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In the beginning, mechanical joints mystified me. I didn’t quite understand what was going on with how a delta robot moved, so this prevented me from being particularly inventive with what I used to connect all the piece together. I read on a forum someplace that you could use 4-40 swivel ball links, which you can get from a hobby store… so I bought myself a set to try out. The thing is, they work great but they cost way more than any piece of plastic should (like… $18.00 for 12 of them. Just enough for one robot). ALSO, they require tiny spacers on either side of the ball. This helps give the rod a breadth of motion without smacking into the plastic piece its rotating in. The sucky part is that the pack of 12 joints form the hobby store only comes with half the number you’ll need (for a delta you need one on each side). The links are the pieces at the end of these 4-40 rods :

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In order to make a whole field worth like I was planning, I’d need to find a cheaper alternative that was less hardware dependent. For now though, these worked. I attached my paddles made of hanger bits to these arms :

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The next step was figuring out how to mount the delta robot. I realized that the servo motors would have to be elevated so that the paddles could swing below the angle of the table top. I didn’t have anything fancy to use at the time, so I took a pasta togo box from the cupboard and cut into it with my dremel to get some nice clearance slots :

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The next thing to figure out was how on earth I was going to mount the actual motors onto my base. A normal person would have used L-brackets of some sort, so I did precisely that… except again, mine were made from strips of plastic cut from togo boxes. >.<

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As you’ve guessed… the end effector was also eventually made from cut pieces of plastic. My first working prototype was practically a togo box with motors :

This was a great feat making my first functioning delta robot. I was proud of its frumpiness because though it wasn’t mechanically solid like a robot made of metal, it still worked. Of course, I wasn’t going to make a whole field of delta robots out of togo containers (although I probably could have because my mom surely had enough to do so). The next step was to shrink the design and refine the method so it could be repeated with ease.

My next prototype was still made of plastic, but I got classy and went to the Container Store and invested in some nice cylindrical boxes. These would become the new bases for my robots :

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I repeated the same steps, cutting the clearance slots for the paddles and making small L-brackets to mount the motors to the base. The base the motors were connects to was actually the lid of the container so you could remove it and use the bottom part as an enclosure for the board running it (clever!) :

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I had aspirations of building three of this particular prototype… to see if they could all be networked together and potentially all run at once :

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The two-dollar micro servos I bought from some nondescript hobby store (imported from China) were terrible quality. Though my second prototype worked, it moved like it had Parkinson’s disease. =/

I wasn’t really happy with this… but two dollars a motor was all I could afford at the time (I was still living at home with the folks). Eager to try again when I could invest in some more quality materials… I started rethinking the entire design.

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For the rest of the summer I meditated on what I had learned. The little blue servos from China stripped in a matter of days while I was testing out code… So I was left with nothing more than a delta shell.

One extremely fateful day I met the people of SYN Shop at an art faire downtown. The hackerspace was just a glimmer in someone’s eye at the time and was run out of the garage of the man who is now my collaborator (Mark Koch). They invited me to stop by some time and show off whatever I was working on. Eesh. Even though I was embarrassed and apprehensive, I brought the mangled corpse of my second delta prototype to show to people. In spite of its appearance, my gimpy child got a lot of attention for the mere fact that I managed to pull off making a delta robot from garbage. Mark had always wanted to build his own pick and place machine, so seeing my creation urged him to get off his butt and make one of his own.

This is when the discovery of 3D printing changed my life. Mark suggested that I design my delta’s parts in CAD and of all things…print them. I was familiar with 3D printers, however the one my art school had was huge and they charged an insulting amount just to produce tiny things with it. Up until then, I had no clue that desktop 3D printers even existed, so my mind was blown when I saw his Replicator for the first time. The usefulness of this tool was revolutionary. I could continue building my robots in plastic like I had been, but I wouldn’t have to machine my parts as if they were metal. How easy!

I spent the rest of the year learning Sketchup. This is a free piece of software that I highly recommend to beginners. It isn’t as powerful as Maya or Solidworks, but its intuitive so you can start making things with it immediately. You basically draw 2D shapes like you would in Illustrator and then extrude them upward to make basic geometrical objects. You can edit things from there of course. If you’re looking to design mechanical parts, this tool is a wet dream, but be patient because it has it’s irritating quirks and limitations.

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One day during CES in 2013, Mark came onto something rather brilliant while we were discussing our designs over margaritas. The solution for those expensive and convoluted swivel ball links (that I had been stuck using) was to use some sort of U-joint that could compress onto ball bearings and twist freely in all directions. The idea was simple and genius :

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This was an important quality because now we could completely divorced ourselves from having to source out any hobby parts. This means aside from some hardware, we no longer had to buy link joints, or cut rod in order to make the robot work. Everything was designed in CAD. Everything was 3D printed. My cost went down significantly, and at last I had the perfect model which I could realistically expect to afford building in mass… and all I had to do was hit ‘print’.

Once we mastered this technicality, it was a matter of implementing it throughout our designs. My personal delta robot went through many…….. many revisions before it became the thing it is now :

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It was at some point last spring that our robots reached their pinnacle. My first complete and polished delta made from 3D printed parts was named Jeden (after the Polish word for one), and Mark’s hanging delta robot was named Amber (after an inside joke Mark and I had at the time). This was the revision of Jeden right before I got my neon yellow filament in the mail :

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We had been working so hard that our collaboration was getting noticed by the others in our community and our friends from SYN Shop decided to interview us about our ‘rivalry’ for their first podcast :

We hadn’t really thought of one another as collaborators (or rivals for that matter) until that point in time. Once it was brought to our attention however we took off like rockets loaded with beer and nitrous. We’ve been working together ever since and within a year brought a delta robot kit to market… which is the thing I’m promoting so heavily right now on Kickstarter.

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This campaign is not only getting us our funding to build that elusive art installation I’ve been wanting to create, it’s also the introduction of our new company to the maker community. Mark and I don’t expect this will be our last kit. We’re sort of hooked on this process now and already have plans for what’s next. We are Robot Army LLC and it looks like we’re here to stay =]

It’s been a fantastic journey. I’m getting to strike a couple of goals off my bucket list. I started this blog two years ago to prove to the world (and myself) that anyone with a little bit of drive and passion can bring something from their dreams into reality… even coming from a position where you lack experience or expertise. There is a wealth of open knowledge and support out there to be drawn upon. If you choose to use it, anything is possible.

Robot Army : Final Stretch

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It was fun having our Kickstarter in tandem with the Olympics. It felt like we were participating in our own sort of event. As I watched the closing ceremony last night, I felt sadness because I knew our ship is setting sail soon and I’m at the point where all I can really do is sit tight and wave goodbye. We have less than a week left and I don’t want it to end. It feels like much more could have been done in regard to press, but Mark assures me that PR is sort of like the lottery. If I could accept that I’d stop banging my head over it like I’ve been doing, but alas… it seems I can’t. tehe.

Our campaign has been an exciting experience over all. Now that we’re switching gears from messy uncontrolled busy to just plain busy, I’ll be able to do some of the things I miss in my free time. This includes playing the occasional video game and shooting episodes of Geeky Freaky with Mark. We still have A LOT left to do. Fulfillment is nothing to be taken lightly, but at least I wont have to write articles about myself in third person every morning.

In preparation for the second phase of our Kickstarter, Mark and I set up a forum for communication with our backers… and I’m working on the design layout for our website, robot-army.com. This will be the official hub of our new LLC where our kit will live after it runs its course on Kickstarter, and where everyone can find updates as our project evolves. In addition, this is where our backers can showcase the neat things they do with our kit. I’m secretly hoping to start some weird culture around  exotic modifications done with delta robots (Project Lick would be an example of an exotic use for a delta).

In some other sort of news… Mark and I got a world map from the craft store the other week and decided to visualize where all our backers are located with push pins. Mark is also building us a long white table for his workspace which is now in the process of being transformed into the ‘War Room’. We can finally coral our robots into one area instead of having parts and pieces peppered throughout the house (which they currently are… it looks like a neon yellow boneyard). Any how, the map with all of its pins will go nicely on the wall at the end of the table. Muahahaha…..

We also confirmed that we’ll be showing our installation at the Las Vegas Mini Maker Faire in April. It probably wont be completely ready by then… but we’ll exhibit our progress in some form. Those of you in Vegas can come be the first to see what all the fuss has been about.

If you haven’t told your friends about our Kickstarter, then you might want to urge them to purchase a soldier of the neon yellow onslaught so that it can protect them once the robots start taking over. Just saying… : Robot Army Starter Kit

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Robot Army : Push Notification Dance

How awesome would it be if you had an adorable little robot bob up and down to let you know when you receive a tweet, message, or get an update on a feed? SUPER AWESOME!  In order to provide a more utilitarian use for our delta robots, we’ve mocked up some example code that scans JSON packets from the internet in order to trigger a response of some sort.

For our first project related update Mark wrote code that causes a delta to dance around every time we receive a new backer for our Kickstarter (our robots should be as happy about that as we are). We let this application run all day on Tuesday to test the reliability of the code, however by doing this we apparently opened a rift of unfortunate irony… and didn’t receive a single backer ALL DAY long. This resulted in one very sad stationary robot and two very discouraged drunk engineers.

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The good news is that in spite of our brief plateau, the code DOES work… and our test robot is the first one to know when we receive new support from the world.

Over at SYN Shop… our window display yet again underwent some unexpected trouble. After replacing the outdated arms on our three torture test robots, we left them for the weekend to… well, be tortured. They were working fine until someone from the hackerspace emailed us Monday with news that they were once again in piles. ::sigh:: When I stopped in that night I was pleased to find that this round of failure was not due to their joints, rather the new servo brackets split in half (odd). It turns out these new brackets were a hair too thin, and the PLA does get a little dry over time. The dryness caused the new tighter joints to bind up, which put strain on the brackets and over time cracked them.

Once more I scooped my children into my arms and drove them home to be tuned up by daddy. He figures the solution is… more lubricant (of course).  This is what a torture test is all about though, so I’m glad we’re getting the chance to iron out these bugs.

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Anyhow, over the past two weeks since the launch we’ve gotten many requests for more detailed information about our machine. If anyone is curious, here are some specifics about the yellow beast :

What are the robot’s dimensions?  The delta robot is approximately 20cm x 20cm wide, and 20cm tall when at rest (a little less than 8” x 8” x 8”).

What is the end effector’s range of motion?  The end effector can reach a diameter of approximately 28cm (about 11”) and can travel up and down on its z-axis 13cm-15cm (about 6”).

How much weight can the robot hold? The robot is able to lift around 12oz (a can of soda) with its end effector.

How fast can the end effector move? Running at full speed, we were able to clock our delta moving approximately 150mm/sec on its z-axis (up and down), and 250mm/sec on its x-y axis.

Having done this, I felt inspired and drew this a few days ago :

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Now that we’re at the halfway point of our campaign… Mark and I are starting to get hungry. We keep reworking our marketing strategy every couple of days in order to reach new audiences. Our plan this week involved making a Facebook page for our LLC and investing in some paid advertising………. you know- the annoying links on the right column that try to profile you (for my demographic its engagement ring ads and stuff to do with babies). I have no idea how this will work out for us, but we figured we’d give it a try.

If you haven’t done so, check out our campaign : Robot Army Starter Kit

Robot Army : Our First Rush

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There were some experiences involved with launching a Kickstarter that I had been heavily anticipating. The most obvious of which being the excitement that follows your first big rush of backers. – Sort of like Christmas, but in the form of a global affirmation that your ideas are liked, understood, and that there is a place in the world for people who dare to seize their dreams.

Though Mark and I were off to a respectable start… our momentum pittered out rather quickly and for a good day and a half we crawled through six or seven percent. It was agonizing. Maybe we were expecting too much. Since we haven’t yet been picked up by any major feeds, its been a matter of sitting in front of the laptop every morning and kindly reminding/begging people to post about our project and help us get the word out.

After blasting yet another batch of such emails to a whole bucket of contacts, I sprawled out on the couch and dozed off. It was a nap of acceptance and release. At some point, Mark walked into the living room and yelled at me for sleeping. He sat down next to me quietly and gave me a hug, feeling something similar- which I can’t really define. A moment later I picked up my phone and checked to see how long I had been out, to find that I had an endless list of push notifications informing us that we had new backers.

Long story short… I suppose Kickstarter featured our project, and once this happened we started getting traffic in a big way. We went from 37% to 76% by the end of the day… which is huge! It’s still sort of funny that this wasn’t the result of any PR we have done. Never the less… it’s good to see your hard work pay off.

Today, I am answering questions about international shipping costs. It eludes me how I can only seem to get astronomical quotes outside of the US. =/ It’s like I’m missing something. Angry customers is bad- so I’m doing everything I can to fix this. We are almost to 90% now. I feel lite and giddy. I may have a piece of cheesecake in celebration. As soon as we are funded however, Mark and I are both getting mega steak.

Robot Army : Deltas in the Window

Mark and I finished up our window display at SYN Shop last night, which we set up to look kinda like a pet shop window. You know, with shredded graph paper at the bottom, little boxes stacked up to play in, and food dishes filled with misc components on the side. We have a rather busy taco joint next door with a walk up bar, so maybe…. just maybe…  the drunken shrapnel off Fremont Street will walk by, see my adorable little babies wiggling, be mystified by them, and feel compelled to rip one of our links off the adoption flyer.

Sadly by the time I woke up this morning our friend Pawel reported that two of our kids had destroyed themselves over night. Leaving them there running all night was kind of an unfair endurance test though. We switched out all their parts for the new tighter beefier versions we designed last week… all but the paddles. – You know, the part that bares all the weight. Guess which pieces failed. So, at some point today we’ll come rescue our kids and give them new little chicken wings… Then hopefully we don’t end up with a pile of sticks again… Saddest thing to see ever : http://moby.to/k4zpr1

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Yup. I can be honest and admit to you that Mark and I have been checking our phones, or updating our browsers every five minutes to see if we have new backers. Yesterday during the Super Bowl we forced ourselves only to check in between quarters and otherwise drank wine and talked about our campaign, ignoring the game. After the first two days we were at 25% and at this very moment as I type this we are hanging just above $3k. It’s a promising start… but none of my PR has paid off yet. I really hope that’s due to it being Monday and not the fact that I am either unpopular, unskilled at writing about my ideas, or too much of a tart to take seriously. Ahhh….. and this is yet another thing that’s feeding the neurosis. On that note, check out our page.

Robot Army : LAUNCH!

In spite of all of the things that looked like they were going to delay us, we got approved in time for our February 1st deadline and launch at midnight! ON TIME! (WOOOO!!!!)

CHECK IT OUT! : ROBOT ARMY STARTER KIT

Today has been exhausting. We’ve been blasting all of the social channels and so far things are off to a pretty promising start… although Mark and I are both running on empty. We were up until close to 3am last night because we were too excited to sleep. It’s taken everything we’ve got not to just sit and hit the refresh button on our KS page all day long… so we’re getting stuff done at the shop… like set up a nice display in the window.

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We plan to make it look like a pet shop window, with graph paper shaving and food bowls filled with scrap electronics… so the little deltas can run their chicken code and charm tourists on Fremont Street. We hung these chintzy xeroxed adoption flyers all over and gave them to our friends to hang up at work.

As I write this we are hanging at 15%…which isn’t a bad start. Hopefully once the weekend is over, we get a mention or two on some tech blogs and things will take off. We’ll see. I really, really hope all my PR pays off. Wish us luck! Better yet… don’t wish us luck- buy a shirt :

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We are in the process of getting a bunch of these made; jersey knit with soft ink… vintage style. They’re going to be sharp!

Robot Army : Video Done… sigh…

It’s done. We filmed close to 100gb of video footage and ended up using less than a percent of that. We story boarded, scripted, tried various locations, and in the end chose the most simple three-minute segment that told the bare minimum about our project. It felt the best, flowed naturally, and isn’t so long that you’d stop watching in the middle of it. So I guess we succeeded. Here it is ^

Now that we’re over that hurdle, on to the next headache. In order to launch a project, Kickstarter requires that you have an Amazon business account to transfer money into once you’re funded. This is all well and good. Mark and I got our corporation made, filed for our EIN and were about to get everything underway with Amazon- however for reasons unknown there was a discrepancy with our tax information (or something???) and we got locked out of our account. This is irritating because they wont give us any details why or what we can do to fix it. ::sigh:: So… Mark and I have been in contact with Amazon’s call center in India, which isn’t really all that helpful. We can’t proceed with setting up our business account until this issue is sorted out, so for now we’re at a stand still. I’m hoping this mess doesn’t delay our February 1st launch… but it just might.

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Other than that, the end effector got a major upgrade this week. We got our light defuser samples in the mail and they’re quite sharp! Of the two sizes, it looks like the larger, more opaque domes will work perfectly for our kit. This means we’ll be replacing those cylindrical paint containers we jammed packing foam into with these new milky nipples :

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All I need to do is tweak the end effector to have holes for the four mounting pegs… SO PLEASED with these.

The stuff that goes inside the lenses also got a makeover. Mark’s tiny PCBs for the SMT LEDs also came in from OSH Park. He couldn’t refrain from adding an easter egg to the back side of the board… which is the reason for their new name. These “F Face” boards are great and will replace the little red through hole tiles I was using for the original six deltas :

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Mark is in the kitchen right now working on a new demo with the Kinect. We now have six robots working at once (two of the six were out of commission during CES). We also have nine more motors now, which will allow us to make an additional three whenever I get around to finishing the next revision of all the parts. Like I mentioned before, everything is getting tweaked. If it’s at all humanly possible, I’ll have all that ready tomorrow so I can print the new pieces and start assembling the three rev. B deltas so they’re ready before our next demo at Work In Progress. That would put us at 9 robots working in tandem. ::wiggles::

Tuesday is the next meeting for the hardware startup group Mark and I are a part of… and we’re giving a demo as well as announcing our February launch to all the downtown people. Hopefully the skelly tracking is ready before then- and of course, nine robots is better than six, so I will work my butt off to get those made too. Wish us luck!

Oh yeah, join the mailing list if you haven’t already! Show support for world domination with robots here : Robot Army Starter Kit Mailing List

Robot Army : Almost There

We’re down to the final stretch. Mark and I have been working on our Kickstarter video for the past ten days… which has been a hell I hadn’t anticipated. It was starting to seem like we were never going to vomit out the right takes that would communicate to our audience what they need to know about our kit. After a dozen or so sessions of filming, I decided I was over complicating things and rethought my strategy. Now after much adieu, our KS video is short, conversational, and in the spirit of what we know how to do best- which is shoot a podcast.

We have many, MANY outtakes from the past two weeks we spent trying in vain to pump out a work of art that wasn’t meant to be. So I’ve edited a few into short chunks which I plan to spoon feed out into the world over the next month. The one above is a rant we derailed on just prior to shooting the footage we actually used.

In other news, we’ve finally started producing our second run of delta robots, which is in reality a whole new revision since every part has been redesigned for one reason or another. These new children will be better and stronger and will eventually replace their brothers and sisters… but that’s just how evolution works, right?

Also, last Friday Mark and I sat down with a lawyer and did the paperwork for our corporation. My dad unknowingly gave us the idea for its name when he registered me for CES, filling in my company name for my badge as “Robot Army”. This was an excellent conversation starter while on the showroom floor. “What do you do?” everyone wanted to know. It felt goofy at first- but the name has its own radical sense of style, so it’s staying. Mark and I are now both owners of Robot Army LLC…….. So all the robots we make from now on will be legitimate. tehe…

The Kickstarter page is also just about finished. Once the rest of the technical crap is sorted, we’ll be ready to launch. It’s about a week away and I couldn’t be more excited! Wish us luck… oh, and join the mailing list! This is your call to action! : Robot Army Starter Kit

Robot Army : Kickstarter Video Do

Somehow, just as I was starting to recover from whatever it was I picked up over the holidays, I managed to contract another illness. I’ve spent the entire year so far being sick… which SUCKS because it’s slowing me down. I was worried about whether or not I had gorilla glue hanging out of my nose while making contacts throughout CES, and I had to cough in the middle of every shot while filming today. I don’t even have that sexy raspy quality to my voice to make up for it. BLAH!

Mark and I filmed my main monologue and a couple supplementary clips this weekend. We want the video to spoon feed the viewer all the important details about the project while throwing in notes of playfulness bordering on insanity. This takes some finesse. As such, while Mark was away at work today I gave my speaking parts another shot while in solitude… to nail the correct freaky to geeky ratio.

For fun we also staged one of the concept drawings I made last week :

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This shot is actually from a time-lapse video. We sat for ten uncomfortable minutes while the sun went below the horizon. The dead grass felt like broken glass underneath the tarp… but it was worth it. The sped up version will look cool as a cut away.

Aside from the video, I’m working on the press release package I’ll be sending out the week before launch. This includes some new graphics I made last week, which are propaganda-like in essence :

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If you’re interested in our project and are thinking about throwing us a couple bucks for a sticker or perhaps buying a kit, join the mailing list : Robot Army Mailing List

Robot Army : CES Week

This week was exhausting. It involved a lot of walking, chatting, setting up, tearing down, and practicing the good ‘ol elevator pitch. Myself, Mark, and his friend Gregg took off to make the most of CES- exploring for two long days on the showroom floor, and then attending events in the evening. It was a lot of fun and we made some new promising contacts (woo!).

Last night we did our first demo with the six working delta robots we have at Pololu Robotics. They held a nice shindig for those attending the convention who were involved with robotics and hackable electronics. It went over well and our kids did a fantastic job, seeing as it was their first recital. >.< Now to double our numbers… Mommy and Daddy must get busy.

Finally, with a moment to relax, Mark and I went over our BOM and caught up on emails this morning over bloody marries. We also started shooting our Kickstarter video now that I have my voice back! We plan to film discreet segments tomorrow around town, so hopefully by next week we’ll have enough content to edit into something awesome.