Hebocon Is a Crappy Robot Competition That Celebrates Failure

Robotics Technology
Hebocon Is a Crappy Robot Competition That Celebrates Failure

Editor’s Note: This article was originally published on Make: Japan on 7/7/2016. The translation below was supplied by the author. Hebocon will be appearing at Maker Faire Bay Area again this year. They will be very popular, so get your tickets soon!

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I have been organizing the Robot Competition for Those Technically Ungifted (a.k.a. Hebocon) for two years. It is an event where people with no robot building skills gather with their robots and make them fight. Participants need a lack of skill, lack of perseverance, and lack of concentration. This is an unmotivated event where we praise those who participate with “Heboi” (crappy, useless, poorly made) robots, not the victors, and impose penalties to those who participate with sophisticated robots.

Hebocon has spread to over twenty-five countries, and there have been over sixty tournaments held by volunteers. You can read further details of the event’s concept and each tournament’s report, but today I would like to write a bit about the chronology of how Hebocon became so widespread.

The Start of Hebocon

I started Hebocon because I like useless and failed works. I currently work as an editor for Daily Portal Z (some English articles). Occasionally, there were articles delivered to us by inexperienced writers and makers. It was clear that they had attempted to imitate others and failed. They forged an article on a “successful” project that was definitely a failure. I really like those articles.

I also make failed crafts. This pair of chopsticks can spin to enable slurping noodles at high speed. The center axis for the spinning part is off-center, so it ended up as a pair of chopsticks that just vibrate.

Crafts that do not go as intended are interesting. You notice where the creator cut corners, where they made compromises, and where they gave up just by looking at the results. In others words, they preserve the creators’ weakness as humans. Badly made crafts are like a drama or piece of literature.

Most of the crafts that appear online are well-done crafts. Generally, people think that there is no value in presenting the badly-done ones. However, I wanted to see those badly-done ones. Attending Maker Faire Tokyo in 2013 gave me the idea to gather those crafts and start a convention just like Maker Faire.

However, this first plan faced a problem: everyone threw their failed creations away, so there were none that could be exhibited. What a waste! Then, about a year later, I came up with another idea: a robot competition for people with low technical skills.

Mansoon’s work: Mr. Karaage Robot #1 and #2. He applied these for the “Useless Maker Faire-like exhibition.” After that event became Hebocon, these two were used as the convention’s mascots.

First Steps

The initial venue was the Japanese-style room of a nearby community center. The plan was to gather around five of my friends to participate. However, when I began recruiting for participants on my blog, I was able to gather twenty people immediately. We would have been too hectic, so the meet-up became an official Daily Portal Z event, and we changed the venue to a live house. That became the first Hebocon. It was a big success!

Best picture of the event. Right after this, the special guest “high-tech robot” came in and trampled everything.

Going International

After that, on November of the same year, I hosted Mini Hebocon at Maker Faire Tokyo. A few days after that, Hebocon was chosen as the Jury Selection during the Japan Media Arts Festival. That is when Hebocon started to be recognized overseas.

A popular foreign Tumblr blogger picked up on the event two days later. His post was then cited in a few news sources, and it was featured on various large-scale American websites like Gizmodo and CNET, unexpected sources like IEEE Society’s blog, and even on an Indonesian otaku news site. It was featured a few dozens times in total. In just two or three days, the word ‘Hebocon’ ran about the entire world, and the above video had already been watched several hundred thousand times.

Article from an Indonesian otaku news site.

Language Barrier

When Hebocon was introduced to the world, all the sites posted the video we uploaded in their articles. I could not update a video that had already been uploaded to YouTube, but I could add annotations to the video and rewrite them as many times as I needed afterwards. I used this function to add a message asking people to send me an e-mail if they wanted to do Hebocon.

A few hours after that, e-mails from people overseas arrived in my mailbox one after another. I was really happy! However, there was one problem: I’m bad at English.

The emails just kept coming in one after another, and it was taking me two hours just to write a single reply by cobbling together example sentences from the Internet.

I couldn’t handle that, so I decided to make documents. In Japanese, I wrote a rule book and guide for holding Hebocon, and sent them out to be translated into English. I distributed this English version to those who wished to hold Hebocon. Looking back on it now, I realize this process helped lead me establishing a standardized set of rules for the future tournament administration.

A section of the rule book.

Continuing to Spread

At the beginning of 2015, the first overseas Hebocon was held in Fullerton, California. The rule book was not completed yet, but they thought that if they waited any longer then it would have been too late. They ignored all the repercussions and started the Hebocon.

There were two or three more events held in America following that first one. It seems that at the time, it was often held as an exhibition for members of a hackerspace/makerspace. The organizers did contact me, but at the time my English skills were still very low so I did not really understand the details.

The Hebocon in Fullerton. The tub-like thing on the left was a hovercraft (at least it was supposed to be but it didn’t look like it was hovering at all).

Around the same time that the documents were completed, large events—mainly in Asia—began to move. There were independent events held in borrowed university lecture halls, and events held at various Maker Faires across the continent. The largest one was Hebocon 廢柴機器人大戰 held in Taiwan in May. Over sixty teams participated. I am not even sure that they were able to judge all the matches in one day. The organizer, Yu-che Hung, volunteered to make a Chinese version of the rule book. He contributed a lot towards the popularity of Hebocon in Taiwan and Hong Kong.

The awardee of the “Most Heboi Award” in Taiwan. Details of their robot are not very clear. Looks kind of machine-like, but it also seems to be made from snack packaging.

Around the same time, the magician Huxley Hunt held a Hebocon under the name Scrapbot Battles UK in the Isle of Wight, England (an isolated island south of Great Britain). He organized the event very frequently, about once every one or two months. Excluding me, he is probably the one person who has organized the most Hebocons.

In Italy, Andrea Rosati and Andrea Barbadoro organized Hebocon Rome. The standard Hebocon rule is to use plywood for the Hebocon arena, but in the spirit of being crappy, these two came up with a truly sloppy idea: just make square shapes using tapes on a table and call it a day. Now most Hebocon events use this simple “Roman Arena” quite often.

The Roman Arena

Derivative Events

While overseas events were handled by the organizers in the corresponding regions, I handled all of the domestic events. I held a lot of them. I was invited to hold tournaments at various Maker Faire events, as well as a banquet hall at Osaka.

I was also invited to the Media Arts Festival’s roadshow, where a visiting reporter from Popular Science, an American science magazine, decided to participate. That helped get the event a lot of coverage.

Steve, a reporter from Popular Science, with his Ms. Perry

Derivative events began popping up too. When I was invited to Niconico Chokaigi, we held Giga Hebocon. Unlike the usual maximum robot size limit of 50 cm, Giga Hebocon demanded robots to be at least 1 meter with room for a pilot.

At the 2015 Maker Fair Tokyo, I organized Water Hebocon, where the contestants fought on water. A lot of them were just floating without doing anything, and I think about half of the matches ended without a fight. Still, looking back on it now, it was pretty fun.

A robot that appeared in Giga Hebocon. The largest robot in Hebocon history, the “Armstrong Robot DX Hebolion” (made of cloth). It was about 3 meters tall.

Event offers kept increasing, and by summer of 2015, it had gotten to the point where it would be too much for me to handle all domestic events by myself. I decided to give permission to some domestic volunteers to hold their own events. Hebocons soon popped up at Seian University of Art and Design, Okinawa National College of Technology, Keio University, and few other places.

The flyer for the Hebocon at the Okinawa National College of Technology (I’ll be honest, this is amazing!)

Also, starting that year, Koga from the same Daily Portal Z editorial as me joined in management, so our manpower increased considerably.

The aforementioned Hebocon Rome also produced two derivative events. The first was Hebo Race, a car race with a penalty for using appropriate tires. People showed up with tires made of anything from soft sponges to thin CD-Rs. The other event, Hebocon Paint Edition, had robots, loaded with colorful ink, fight by spraying their opponents. It took colorful inspiration from Nintendo’s Splatoon.

A look at the Hebocon Paint Edition

Truly Seeing My Movement

In November of 2015, I got the chance to come and see the Hebocon that was held overseas directly on-site. It was 廢柴機械人大戰 Hebocon Maker Faire 特別版 held in Hong Kong. This Hebocon was organized by Rada Sun and VP Pang at the Hong Kong Maker Faire. It was both the second Hebocon for them, and Hong Kong.

I stayed there for four days and three nights. I saw dozens of foreigners speaking a language I could not understand gather and enthusiastically cheer for Hebocon. I was genuinely surprised.

A look at Hebocon in Hong Kong. The robot on the left that can only rotate its head and face is called the “Tatsumaki Senpuukyaku.”

I could not believe it. Something like this was really happening? All of these people were really here for Hebocon? I had heard that Hebocon was popular overseas, but I was still really shocked when I saw it myself.

It was a strong experience for me. The fact that Hebocon was spreading across the sea is still beyond my expectations. I could not believe that Hebocon had become so well-received and hyped even in countries with languages I do not understand. For the first time, I saw the true strength of the Hebocon project.

A single shot of a good memory. The man on the far right wearing a hoodie is me.

On a World-Wide Stage

In May of this year, I was hit by my next surprise. I was invited by people from Make: Japan to host Hebocon at Maker Faire Bay Area, the holy ground from where all Maker Faires originate.

There, we held a mini-tournament called Mini Hebocon where participants fought using robots they created on-site. Unlike the time I went to Hong Kong only to observe, this time we were organizing the event ourselves. Similar to before, I saw people speaking a language I did not understand. I had gotten better at reading and writing in English, but I was still really bad with conversations. It was my second time seeing so many people outside of Japan enjoying Hebocon, but the sight still came as a shock.

The excitement at Hebocon Bay Area!

This time, there were many experienced Hebocon participants and organizers. They were not just from America, but from all over. It felt like the whole world was here.

Hebocon had finally reached its peak. Two years after the very first event, Hebocon had spread across the world. Looking back on it now, I am blessed to have been such a carefree founder.

With David Cuartielles, the co-founder of Arduino. David has had interest in Hebocon for a while, and it seems like he was the one who suggested holding the Hebocon in Valencia, Spain this year.

Not Done Yet

And with that, Hebocon became a world-wide movement. Not even I can stop this momentum. However, I was not done yet, there was still something I needed to do, a responsibility I needed to take: the world championship.

The first Hebocon World Championship was held in June of 2016. It was a huge success and the winner left with two Arduino boards.

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Now that the world championship is over, I am at a loss of what to do next. Galactic championship? I guess we will have to see.

Now it’s your turn to hold a Hebocon in your town. If you’re interested in holding a Hebocon, please send a message to our Facebook page. Tell us where you want to hold it. I’ll prepare the manual and various documents needed to hold a Hebocon. There’s also a community where organizers from all over the world gather. The wonderful Heboi world is waiting for you!

Discuss this article with the rest of the community on our Discord server!
Daiju Ishikawa

Hebocon crappy robot competition founder. Editor of Japanese popular website Daily Portal Z. Creator of DIY gags. Main field is creating electronic prank constructions like "Machine that automatically puts too much soy sauce", "Machine that automatically applies fingerprints to glasses" etc. 2013/7 - Held exhibition "Mecha-Kuyo" at Shibuya Hikarie. 2014/7 - Held event "Hebocon", was chosen for the Media Arts Festival Jury Recommended Works.

View more articles by Daiju Ishikawa


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