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Real-Life Toy Story

Thomas Bewley
Mechanical engineering professor Thomas Bewley, director of the Coordinated Robotics Lab at the Jacobs School of Engineering

Jacobs School alums, take note: you can now buy a toy at your local Best Buy that engineering graduate students here at UC San Diego helped design. The toy, named MiP—short for Mobile Inverted Pendulum—is the result of an intense collaboration between the UCSD Coordinated Robotics Lab and toymaker WowWee.

MiP can balance itself and drive around on two wheels. “Its organic nature is particularly engaging: when it stands, it gently sways back and forth; when pushed, it takes a step back to regain its balance. In a very real way, the dynamics of MiP mimic life,” said mechanical engineering professor Thomas Bewley, director of the Coordinated Robotics Lab at the Jacobs School of Engineering.

Users can connect with MiP right out of the box in several different modes of play. You can interact with the toy robot immediately using intuitive hand gestures. Install the tray that MiP can carry and test your skill at stacking games. Or put a full soda can on MiP’s tray, and drive it to a friend across the room via Bluetooth and a free smartphone app. And, of course, MiP can dance—either to the beat of its own built-in tunes, or to any tunes on the user’s phone or tablet.

Want one? MiP is available for $100, currently at Best Buy and later more broadly. Convince a buddy to get one too, and they can box, Rock ‘Em Sock ‘Em–style, via the robot’s boxing app.

Researchers in the UCSD Coordinated Robotics Lab designed the algorithms that balance MiP, and helped to select and calibrate the various phone-grade and toy-grade components that make it all work. WowWee designed the robot’s body and its user interface, including the smartphone app, and endowed MiP with its unique personality, which it expresses through sound and bright LED eyes.

“The partnership between WowWee and UC San Diego is going to yield some amazing and dynamic products in the years to come,” said WowWee USA president Peter Yanofsky. “We are very excited to be on the cutting edge of this ideation and execution, beginning with the amazing MiP.”

Ph.D. student Saam Ostovari led the efforts in Bewley’s lab to reduce their small two-wheel designs in scale and cost using strict “design for manufacturing” ideas. He helped transfer the lab’s experience in solving balancing problems using toy-grade components to WowWee. Ostovari also spent countless hours Skyping and emailing with WowWee’s engineers in Montreal and Hong Kong, addressing questions regarding how to bring manufacturing costs down to a bare minimum, while maximizing the toy’s fun factor. Ostovari labored in secret over several iterations of the design until January 2014 when he helped WowWee unveil MiP at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas. Named a Product of the Future by Popular Science at the show, MiP was a highly popular finalist in the Last Gadget Standing competition at CES and received critical acclaim from many in the industry.

“That’s when it hit me,” Ostovari said. “This thing is actually going to be a toy that people can buy.”

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