Giant robot fights sounded cool in theory, but in reality they were a little… underwhelming. But there's another robot fighting league in the works by Chinese company GJS, and it's one that the average joe could participate in. Meet Geio, an app-controlled battlebot that you drive from a first-person view to duke it out in a kind of robot laser tag match. New Atlas took one of these robots for a lonely test drive.
Geio follows in the footsteps of GJS' previous fighting robot, Ganker, but the new model seems like a streamlined, more accessible version. The two droids have the same four-legged stance and general design, but where Ganker was about hand-to-hand combat with swords and clubs, Geio is built around a longer-range fighting style.
Straight away that means Geio needs less moving parts than its predecessor, but that doesn't come at the cost of maneuverability. The wheels on each of its four legs are omnidirectional, complete with perpendicular rollers in a clever stroke of engineering. That means that while the robot is moving forwards or backwards, it can also roll sideways at the same time, allowing it to strafe or change direction in a heartbeat.
Mounted atop this nimble base is a turret with a chaingun, a camera and an LCD "face." Within a fairly limited window the head can be aimed up, down, left and right, pointing an infrared beam with it to "shoot" at other Geio bots, which detect the hits through infrared sensors in their knees.
The LCD screen displays a face that's supposed to reveal the robot's emotions, but in our experience that's mostly limited to a lot of winking. The camera lets users drive the contraption through its own eyes, with a first-person feed popping up on their smartphone screen. This is overlaid with controls to steer, rotate the bot's angle and aim the turret.
Through the camera the robot is also equipped with a visual recognition system that can identify enemies, teammates, powerups and apparently even human faces. Geio can not only identify other Geio robots but also the Ganker models, and to grant powerups GJS includes boxes called "totems," which work kind of like QR codes. By pointing the camera at one face of the box, the visual system can recognize what the symbol means and, for example, give the robot a new type of weapon or restore some lost health points.
Like Sphero's line of robot balls and Star Wars droids, we were initially worried that Geio might suffer from a lack of things to do with all that tech, but its focus on multiplayer games should help it avoid that fate – provided you have friends with their own battlebots.
Geio comes ready with four game modes. Royal Duel is a one-on-one battle, where pairs of robots fire on each other to drain their opponent's health to zero. Attack and Defense is a team battle over designated territory, where the attackers are trying to scan totems while the defenders aim to keep them away. To keep things interesting, each team has different abilities: the attackers have less health points but can zip around fast, while the defenders have more health and stronger weapons. The trade-off is that the defending bots can't move, other than turning on the spot.
Scavenger Hunt Race involves two teams racing to find the treasure, which again takes the form of scanning totems. And finally there's an old-fashioned Speed Race, complete with a Mario Kart-style twist in the form of weapons.
As fun as all that sounds, unfortunately we didn't get a chance to try everything out. Our early-access version of the Geio app only had the basic Duel mode enabled, and even then we only had a single robot to play with, so we couldn't get the full experience.
That said, the impressive tech in there makes even the basics of driving the robot around far more intuitive than something like Sphero. Geio can take off at speed and turn on a dime, and it's immensely satisfying to be able to pull off a string of movements like strafing left while firing your gun forwards, then immediately doing a 180 and retreating to a safe distance.
Not that we got to that skill level straight away. It took a bit of practice first, after learning the basics of getting around. Here's a hot tip: maybe try starting out in a large empty space first, with as few obstacles to crash into as possible. In our experience, even something as small as a cable on the floor presents an unclimbable hurdle. Tiled floors were also a bit of a challenge, with the robots' back legs skidding out in front and messing up its trajectory, but again, maybe this just takes more practice. The wheels can handle carpet effortlessly though.
Scanning the totems takes about five seconds or so, and we aren't sure whether that's a bug or a feature. It's a pretty reasonable amount of time for the system to work its magic, and in the heat of battle we feel like it would probably add some tension and strategy to the game: since scanning totems leaves you a sitting duck, you'll have to time it just right.
All up, our limited hands-on session with Geio left us impressed and wanting more. With only one of the bots to play with we can't fully comment on how well it all works in team play, but at this early stage all the ingredients seem to be there for a really great multiplayer game. In the long run, GJS seems to have plans to set up a robot fighting league, and it's already made a start with the Ganker robots.
GJS is currently seeking funding for a production run of Geio on Kickstarter, and already the campaign has more than doubled its US$30,000 goal with 18 days remaining. Pledges begin at $109 for a single robot, but since it's designed to play with friends there's a two-pack for $209 and a four-pack for $399. If all goes to plan, GJS says it will ship the robots as early as February next year.
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