Walking along the desert playa of Burning Man festival in 2003, Jonathan Tippet stumbled across a pair of dinosaur legs. Made of car parts, the structure stood upright at eight feet tall, looming over the sand.
After staring at the statue for some time, he noticed a small seat at the very top, placed for those intrepid enough to climb up. For the young creator, it was a life-changing moment.
“I ran a pottery studio for my early years, so my sculptural side immediately appreciated it,” he tells the Georgia Straight on the line from Vancouver. “But I was also a trained engineer. I was a couple of years out of school by then, and I figured I could make it move. I thought that it would be great if you could sit on top of these legs and ride them—and it would be even cooler if you could ride it with your body, using your skill to control it rather than push a button.”
Tippet was dreaming big. Putting pen to paper for the first time in 2006, he sketched out a four-legged design that would hold a human in its belly, with insectoid legs and warthog-tusk-bumpers let that would let people race over desert terrains. It was a wild idea, closer to the drawings in a Japanese manga comic than a serious project. But the more he thought about the concept, the less crazy it seemed.
“As I was planning it, I came to the realization that we were entering a world where everything is being automated,” he recalls. “That leads to the lowering of the importance of skill. Some of the most gratifying experiences I had growing up were things like mountain biking or playing drums—activities that take years to master, and require practice and focus. I think those experiences are fundamental to the human condition, and robotics is generally antithetical to that—its purpose is to do stuff for us, so we don’t have to get good at it. That’s really important for certain areas of life, but I felt it was necessary to highlight the other side, which is the earned experience. I wanted to create a machine that people could control, and would have to train to be good at.”
Crafting a vision for the project, he imagined a sports league where the enormous machines would compete in expertise-fuelled challenges, with elite athletes and adrenaline junkies at the controls. The robots, or “mech”, would be tasked with completing obstacle courses in the quickest time, overcoming hurdles such as pushing giant boulders and scaling tall hills. Sitting somewhere between American Ninja Warrior and a motorized track and field meet, the event would be a high-octane showcase—the evolution of competitions like the X Games, with its motocross, superpipe snowboarding, and freestyle snowmobiling.
“When we first started telling people the idea, especially the offroaders and extreme athletes, their first response was ‘fuck yeah’,” he says with a laugh. “Some of them even mentioned that they were wondering when someone would make something like this. We want to make an entertainment franchise that appeals to a wide audience, not just the nerds who are there to watch machines break. Ideally we would be making all the mechs ourselves, and we’d get brands to sponsor a team, like Red Bull or Bentley or Audi. They’d then find their own pilot to control it, and modify the machine within certain parameters.”
With his concept of an entertainment league beginning to take shape, Tippet started to build the first iteration of the mech. In 2010 he completed his drawings, and invited UBC engineering students to help with the construction. Mentoring teams of five individuals through a 10-credit fourth-year grad program, the groups built the first prototype piece, and named it the alpha leg.
“It was a six-foot tall leg on a 12-foot tall tower,” Tippet says. “A pilot sat on the top of the tower and controlled the leg with their arm. The tower would fall over and you’d have to catch yourself with the leg and jump back over, and then you’d have to catch yourself on the other side.
“That project ran for five years, and then in 2015, I got in touch with the CEO of Furrion,” he continues. “We had a mutual friend, so we’d been hearing about each other for a while. He came over to see the alpha leg. I was looking for funding to build a full mech, because I’d gotten as far as I could over that five years on my own cash and the fantastic donations we’d gotten, ranging from tens of thousands of dollars-worth of parts to important software. When he saw it he thought it was a wild idea. He said, ‘How much do you need to build the machine, and can you get it done in time for CES [Consumer Electronics Show]?’ That was the major turning point. We built the whole thing in a year, and named it Prosthesis.”
Immediately on its completion, the team took the creation to Vegas to show it off at the largest electronics convention in the world. Next, it was transported to Los Angeles, where the team made it onscreen for an episode of the hit TV show Silicon Valley. Worried that they had spent so much of their time travelling across North America that contributors never had a chance to see the final build, the mech’s inventors welcomed it home to Vancouver at the end of June with an intimate event. Now, Prosthesis is headed up to Squamish, where Tippet and his team will tweak its design.
“Right now our goal is to get it working faster—walking, running, and bounding,” he says. “We also need to figure out what the format of mech racing will look like. Then, we’ll be attracting a partner or collaborator who wants to sponsor a team to build another one, and have a race. We just want to get this machine to its maximum potential.”
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