Interview with Davin Sufer, CTO of WowWeePosted by Khalid J Hosein on Tuesday, 19 December 2006
ffRoboCommunity is pleased to present an interview with Davin Sufer, WowWee's CTO, who operates out of WowWee's office in Hong Kong. Davin waxes philosophically about his role at WowWee, robots in society, and gives us some insight into what exciting prospects the future may hold for WowWee customers.
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Hello Davin. Thanks for taking the time to talk with us. First off, please tell us a little about yourself and how you came to be at WowWee.
I was introduced to the one of the owners of WW by a common friend. We met briefly and I was invited to visit the Hong Kong office as a potential hire. Of course I was blown away by the sheer pace of Hong Kong, and WowWee in particular. I quickly realized that this was a great place to work. Once I returned home and caught my breath, I was offered a job at WowWee R&D in Hong Kong.
A few follow-up questions: What is your title exactly? How long have you been with the company? What are your day-to-day responsibilities? What are you primarily working on now?
My title is Chief Technology Officer. Basically this means that I am tasked with sourcing and assessing new technologies, managing relationships with third party technology partners and finding ways to incorporate their technologies into our products. Challenge here is to make sure that we have all the technologies we need for each project either in house, from vendors, or have a good source for them.
In addition to this I help manage the Electronics and Software R&D efforts at WW. My day to day efforts involve working on detailed specifications for our products, coming up with product ideas, following up with vendors and helping plan out development efforts with our in house software team.
What was your first robotic experience that made you who you are today?
I built my first "robot" with a friend while in elementary school. The project involved cardboard, some switches, an RC car and a broken Walkman. We drove it around and had it drive up to people. If you grabbed its hand it would trigger the walkman to play back a greeting.
Much later, in College, another friend introduced me to the world of robotics competitions. In our first year, we founded a Robotics Team and built a basketball playing robot for a Canada First Competition. We put together a strong team to recruit more students, raise money, create a documentary video AND build a robot in time for the competition. It was our first year competing and I am proud to say that we came in second place.
What do you find most rewarding working at WowWee and with robots?
It's quite rare to be able to see a project through from its early conceptualization, through R&D to production. At WowWee, Project Managers get to see this progression and it's a very rewarding experience.
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Having been heavily involved in the development and production of the RS Media, what lessons do you feel that process has taught you that you will take with you into future products? What were the biggest challenges?
RS Media is the first WowWee product to ship with a Software Suite for programming the robot. So the biggest challenge with RS Media was integrating the PC Software with the actual robot. It was very hard to test the software without the hardware available. This was further complicated by delays caused by the fact that RS Media is PACKED with technology and we had some significant technical hurdles to solve while keeping the product affordable.
On future products we have already starting building tools to account for this issue and we are leaving more time in our development cycle for Software/Hardware integration. We are building on top of the RS Media hardware platform and we are constantly improving it. We are also working on streamlining the user experience so the process of programming a personality and loading it into the robot is even easier..
What emerging or relatively new technologies (for example: nanotechnology, RFID) do you foresee or would like to see be employed in future WowWee products? - Let's break this up into two time horizons: near-term: within the next 2 to 3 years, and long-term: more than 3 years out.
We are already using RFID in a toy coming out next year.
In the next few years you can expect to see some of the following: even more innovative locomotion systems, lots more personality and content, more sensors and more programmability. We are also looking at even more ways to integrate our products with the PC and the Internet. Improved vision systems, speech systems and wireless connectivity will also make it into some of our higher end products.
More than three years out: Expect to see more autonomy, obstacle avoidance, navigation, and even more integration with PC and Internet.
Let's get into some more specifics. What plans do you have for future sensors, servos, software, etc.?
As far as sensors go, think more intelligent with higher range. We've also been working on new and fun ways for our products to interact with people and each other. We've been adding memory and building engaging personalities. It's difficult to build something intelligent and to make that intelligence visible. We've had many discussions about this issue and finding ways to not only make our products more intelligent, but also on how to make this apparent.
In terms of software, we are looking ways of simplifying the software and have been considering a more web-enabled experience for our products and our customers.
Does WowWee have any plans to expand their focus from entertainment products to perhaps home appliance type devices or even industrial robots? [The Roomba comes to mind as a practical robot.] If yes, when do you imagine we could see the first results?
We are working on some ideas which go in this direction! The results from this effort should become visible in early 2008... Till then it's all top secret of course!
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Perhaps I've read and seen too much Science Fiction, but I can see WowWee producing androids in the future that are our robotic butlers. What do you think is currently preventing mankind in general from taking this next step? Is it technological, cost or perhaps a general subconscious resistance on the part of people?
I've said many times since I've started at WowWee that the hardest part about building robots is people. This is true on many levels.
People live in very unstructured environments. The device you are hinting at would need to be mechanically capable enough to get around and manipulate objects in our world. So first of all it would have to be able to get around without damaging something or getting stuck in a corner. Those are the technical challenges: capable mechanics and safe navigation.
People tend to have very high expectations from any type of intelligent device. An autonomous robot driving around a home would have a lot to live up to and the first versions will need to provide some useful, robust and practical capabilities.
What advice would you give to a kid that loves robots and wants to have a career in robots?
Build! That's the best advice I can think of. There is so much material available on the web: low cost microcontroller kits, programmable robot kits, sample source code, videos, books, etc.
Compete! Join or create a robotics team and enter a competition.
This is the most important question of all. Our readers really want to know what evil genius comes up with the packaging for WowWee. We even came up with an unpacking guide! Really... bolts? ;-)
As you can appreciate, it's important that our products make it to you in one piece!! Our "evil packaging genius" is working on ways to make this easier without compromising the safety of our robots!
Thanks again Davin for giving us some insight into WowWee, the technology and what exciting new things await us. Any closing thoughts?
Thank you, I appreciate the opportunity to talk to your community and hope that you all stay tuned to see all the crazy ideas we are developing at WowWee.