MekaMon is a real-life robot battler. Players use a mobile app on their iOS or Android devices to control a physical machine that looks something like a tiny Protoss Dragoon from Starcraft. An augmented reality mode in the app also creates a virtual world for the robot to inhabit. Developer Reach Robotics is launching it on November 16 for $300.
Cofounder and CEO Silas Adekunle says Reach is a culmination of his many interests, including a childhood love for wildlife, an interest in electronics, and many hours spent playing massively multiplayer online games. The latter in particular informed the decision to add an AR element to MekaMon.
“I used to play loads of MMOs and shooters,” Adekunle said during a conversation with GamesBeat. “I saw that there were a lot of good things happening in the gaming industry in terms of entertainment and engagement, where characters evolve and change over time. If you buy a toy car or a toy robot, it stays more or less the same. As we’re moving into the smartphone age, the digital age, where you have this powerful computer in your hand, that opens up a limitless world in terms of software.”
MekaMon is ready for player-vs.player battles, and AR adds a single-player element and co-op play. Two players with MekaMons can go head to head, or they can take on waves on enemies together. The robots connect to each other using infrared signals, and similarly, two players’ phones will connect over Bluetooth.
Adekunle says that customization is a priority. The company will launch two models, each with a set of basic physical gear, the Training Shield and Fury Rifle. Players will be able to swap out the gear, and Reach plans on creating more accessories with community feedback. The MekaMon app enables players to program custom moves as well, using Apple’s Swift programming language.
“You actually go through a series of lessons where you start with some simple activities, learning to move the robot around, and then as you start to get more comfortable with that, you get more complex sequences you can put in place and create more behaviors for your MekaMon,” said Adekunle. “We’ll be expanding on that in the future.”
An “educational” mode isn’t in the works at this time, but Reach has heard from teachers that they want to use robots to teach coding in their classrooms. It’s open to pursuing that use case, though Adekunle says that for the basic version, it’s important to have a low barrier to entry. Folks who want to program can do so, whereas those who just want to have a robot battle can skip that aspect altogether.
Adekunle says MekaMon is still in an early adopter phase, not only because of the price point but also because users aren’t familiar with the technology. Reach has to onboard them on what the robot can do, and AR is still very new to most people.
“As people play with MekaMon, it takes a while to understand the tracking process, a while to get used to having to calibrate the MekaMon,” said Adekunle. “It’s a bit like a smartphone. It’s almost like releasing a new computer to someone again, because of the intersection between physical and virtual gameplay.”
In 2018, Reach will be focusing on bringing MekaMon out to more events to show people how it works and build up a community. It’s also got an eye on competitive robot fights, particularly given the popularity of shows like BattleBots. Even if the tech is new, the concept of battling robots isn’t. Folks have launched Kickstarter campaigns for do-it-yourself robots. And the concept of a personal robot isn’t too farfetched now either; there are a handful of startups now working on artificial companions.
“You have robots that can battle each other, robots that can do all sorts of stuff, robots that you can code and bring new things out of it—in fact, that will be key to one of the ways we move forward, making sure that the community that builds up around MekaMon has places to come together with each other, share things with each other, and show each other what they’re working on and what they’re doing with MekaMon,” said Adekunle.