Interview: The Robo-Obsessions of Hacker 4mem8

You all know him by his cryptic RoboCommunity nickname: RobosapienV2-4mem8 (or “4mem8” for short).

And we all admire his work as the ultimate Robo-hacker diarist. I felt like an eyewitness to an obsessively curious mind when I read his unique 3-part work: “How I Replaced Roboquad's Eyes and Mouth.

4mem8 then followed that with his near-classic story of robo-desire in "Diary of My First Days with the J2R Robot.”

And I constantly found myself wondering outloud:

“What kind of mind takes up that screwdriver and soldering iron so fiercely, night after night, to modify WowWee bots in such twisted and creative ways. Who is the real person behind the cracked cases and multicolored LEDs?”

Without his mask, Spiderman passes among us as Peter Parker. Superman moves through ordinary life as Clark Kent. The hands that hack the botsAnd (drumroll) I have uncovered (behind the grim Terminator avatar of 4mem8) the gentle face of Mike Peckham.

By day, Mike is the hyper-skilled woodturner dedicated to building boats and carving exotic wood laminates. He is justifiably know throughout New Zealand for his artistic salt and pepper shakers. He has a family: his much-loved son Jamie, and that wonderful woman Carol who somehow lives with Mike’s creative obsessions.

But our focus here are those moments when Mike lays the wood aside, blows off the sawdust and goes high tech. He builds very high-end gaming PCs and radio-controlled gas turbine model jets. He has put together a master computer central in his home for mega-gaming.

And then there his robot workshop which sits at the heart of our story.

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Eric for RoboCommunity: 4mem8 how did you get started making and modifying robots?

Mike Peckham in his Robot Workshop4mem8: I saw the “Short Circuit” movies. in the eighties. In fact I saw them over and over. I was then 33. And I have been interested in robotics ever since. But before I could start, I had to learn the basics of electronics and then progress from there. So first I read lots of electronic books, then moving to digital electronics. Thirty years later, I have made quite a few robots -- some good some not so good; some small, others huge.

Eric for Robocommunity: How do you decide what to hack?

4mem8: The robot has to appeal to me.

WoWee put out some interesting bots: RSV2, RSV2M, Roboquad, Robopanda, Robopet, etc. But they also put out some that don't interest me: Roboreptile, Mini sapiens, Roboraptor etc.

So I pick the ones that draw me. And then I look at the hack that can be made with each one – sometimes a small hack, or perhaps something major.

I strip the bot down to bare frame and see what potential it has. Quite often I will decide as I go.

Eric for Robocommunity: Are you doing this to understand more deeply how they were designed, or are you trying to create radical new designs of your own?

4mem8: I am interested in how WoWee products are designed, but my primary interest is in seeing what else I can do to improve the design or make it more interesting to me. If other people find it interesting after I finish the project then that's great.

I have an insatiable thirst to add sensors or LEDS or anything else that makes the robot more interesting.

Eric for Robocommunity: Tell us your ideas for a basic workshop. What should a starting hacker think about putting together?

4mem8: Looking back: when I first started I had nowhere near enough test gear. I had only a multi meter, soldering iron and a logic probe, and these are pretty basic.
If you are serious about robotics and want to build from scratch and you can afford test gear I would acquire an 20 MHZ oscilloscope dual trace, 50MHZ frequency counter, power supply with +12v -12v +5v -5v and a variable voltage supply, multi meter, soldering iron with fine tip, TTL/Cmos Logic probe, 500MHZ Logic pulser, 6v, 12v, 24v probe, and last but not least a 3MHZ Function generator.

But you can certainly get away with a lot less than the above when first starting out. I did.

Eric for Robocommunity: Is the Robo-hacking world anything like the open source world -- where people are now "freely creating" on their own and contributing the larger progress?

4mem8: I think it could be. I am on a number of forums and I am seeing this trend by the posts submitted and when you look at (say, for instance) Robert Oschler's Robodance used in conjunction with WoWee's robots whether hacked or not makes a very interesting robot seem to come to life.

Eric for Robocommunity: Do you communicate with other people interested in robo hacking? What kind of idea exchange goes on?

4mem8: One secret is combining planning with collaboration.

Robosquad laid openThere are a lot of talented people out there and forums are a good place to be to acquire information. We all have some expertise in a given area and we all have our blank spots.

Take me: My designing strength is in hardware. And in NOT software. That is my weakness. I’m working on learning programming better, but I also rely on others to help me there.

This way we can all learn a lot more from each other and by our mistakes or good fortunes come out a better person in the hacking world.

What I like most about our online scene is that you can bounce an idea and generally you will get a good response from several people and some idea's you have not thought of before. When you start mixing all these idea's together you can come to your own conclusion what to do next.

I am 56 and have been into robotics for a very long time now, But I am never too old to learn from the younger generation and what they have to offer. These people are the future robo hackers.

Eric for Robocommunity: What is the connection between the artisanship of your woodworking and the inventiveness of your advanced robotics?

4mem8: This is a tricky question, Eric.

I have many hobbies, but robotics is my passion, But, if I was to concentrate totally on robotics I would burn myself out. So I have a diverse interest which refreshes the mind.

Salt and PepperQuite often I will be on my wood lathe putting together an order turning, say, 50 sets of Salt and Pepper Shakers. And at some point in that order I will stop and have an idea about either the next robotic project or the next stage in a current project.

I then sit down and take notes for later ref' -- then go back to what I was doing.

This can also work in reverse when working on robotics I have an idea about a new woodturning design. So keeping the mind active in various hobbies is heathy.

Eric for Robocommunity: What are some of your favorite current projects?

4mem8: My latest project is my robotic base with RSV2 Installed on top, This is quite a big project and will be ongoing for a while. But you can see some of my progress at my online tutorial.

4mem8's new Sensor botAlso here is a sneak shot of my new sensor bot. The hardware is almost finished, but this project is going to take a while to program since (as I said) programing is my weakness. I don't think I will have any hair left after this project!

Eric for Robocommunity: Do you have dreams about robotics and the future of robotics?

4mem8: Oh yes!

Personally, I wish I was a robotic scientist. I should have studied more at school instead of larking about.

The dream I have most, Eric, is being in a robotic lab with all the resources available to you and designing something out of this world. Oh well, dreams are free.

I do hope that, in the future, the robots we create, of whatever type, are beneficial to man and do not go against mankind, However the human race being what it is, sometimes I have serious concerns.