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Retro-Robotics

You know a technology has been around for a while when people start voraciously collecting everything having to do with that technology’s “good ol’ days.” I’ll never forget the first time I saw the magazine Historically Brewed (about “antique” PCs) and discovered that people would have been willing to pay good money for the boxes of ’80s computer magazines and manuals I had just shipped off to the recycling center. In the last few years, the robots from the premature ’80s personal robot “revolution” have been enjoying a similar wave of collector’s nostalgia.

Androbots

Looking over the pictures and descriptions of the robots offered (and promised) by Androbot, Inc., two thoughts immediately leap to mind: How cool! and Wow, how shockingly naïve! Started by Nolan Bushnell, flush with cash from starting Atari and the Chuck E. Cheese’s Pizza Time Theater chain, it feels as though Androbot wanted to wish these robots into existence by sheer force of will and weight of wallet. But this was the early 1980s, when the Apple II+ was cutting-edge computer technology. With what we know now, trying to get a robot to navigate a space, speak, respond to spoken commands, or to do anything with the digital technology of that era seems foolhardy, but try it did. The company actually sold two robots, Topo I and Topo II/III. Topo I was basically a large (over three feet tall) remote-controlled toy robot. It used a one-way radio frequency link from an Apple II+ and could be controlled via a joystick or by executing a control program in the BASIC language. It did nothing else. And even with this fairly simple task (moving around), many of the 1,000 or so Topos that shipped didn’t work as advertised. The second-generation model, the Topo II, had a two-way infrared link to communicate with either an Apple or Commodore 64. The bidirectional link enabled Topo II/III to send data back to the computer. A text-to-speech processor also enabled Topo to speak what you typed on your PC.


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