Attack of the 50 Foot Omnibot
In the early 80's, there were few toys cooler than the remote controlled electronic wonder known as the Omnibot. These days robot toys are a dime a dozen and can do everything from wrestle to play soccer. More than 20 years ago, the Omnibot reigned as the ultimate robotic tech-toy and was on every nerdy kid's Christmas list.
For the time, this 14" tall distant cousin of R2-D2 was an amazingly cool remote control robot. It had a built-in tape deck, fully functional alarm clock, and LCD window that displayed the time, day of the week, and quarter-minutes (instead of seconds). The quarter-minute display wasn't very useful, but it looked cool as it flashed in one of 4 directions for 15 seconds at a time.
Omnibot was controlled with a remote that allowed the user to move it forward, turn right (in-place), turn left (in-place), and move backward. There was a button to start and stop the audio cassette tape playback. Two other buttons activated one of two different Omnibot computing noises. The user could hold the button on the side while talking in to the remote and have his/her voice heard through Omnibot's built-in speaker. The eyes would light up brighter in sync with the sounds it made, including electronic beeps, audio cassette playback, and the user's voice. It may not seem like much by today's standards, but in the 80's, that was some seriously cool stuff. There simply were no other self-propelled remote controlled toys that offered so many cool features back then.
This little guy could get around quite well. There were 4 thick, rubber-traction wheels underneath that drove the Omnibot at a slow, but decent pace. Bare floors and sidewalks were no problem, of course. It could easily crawl over most carpets and even grass (at a reduced pace). Moving like an unstoppable robotic mini-tank, there were few surfaces this electronic mass of plastic coolness could not make its way over. Snow, mud, and molten lava come to mind.
Omnibot's arms could be posed up and down in different positions. The "hands" were self-leveling, so they would always be parallel to the ground, and they could be rotated at the wrist joint. The left arm sported a cool claw that could be opened up to grip things. The arms and hands (or claw) were not mechanized because it would have made the toy too expensive for most consumers. Even without motorized articulated appendages, there were some cool tricks it could do under the control of a skilled nerd.
When the claw was set in the open position, it could automatically be snapped shut again when an object came in contact with a small release trigger located between the grips. Therefore, it was possible to have Omnibot fetch beverages or another small objects by maneuvering it so that the claw-release came in contact with the item just right, thus gripping it with a spring-loaded clamp-action. I used to love setting things across the room and having Omnibot bring them back to me. It's a geek thing.
The right "hand" was basically a cup holder. One of many fun things to do with Ombibot was to serve drinks to people. A can of soda, or beverage in a glass, fit nicely in the cup-holder hand. If more carrying space was needed, the supplied serving tray could be placed securely in the robots hands. I remember always wanting to use Omnibot to serve drinks to our extended family when they came to visit. This event was usually short lived as I would be scolded for getting the robot in the way of the adults. For some reason, most grownups just didn't understand the nerdy cool factor of serving drinks with a remote controlled robot.
There was a "base" to put Omnibot on when it was at rest or being charged. It was nothing more than a thin piece of black, semi-glossy cardboard with cross-hairs and a red border printed on it. I used to use it to give the neighborhood kids some pretty nasty paper cuts when they pissed me off. I mean, I drew some serious blood with that thing. Uh... ok, I never did anything like that. It just popped in my head and made me laugh so I thought I'd share.
The vintage Omnibot you see in the photo above wasn't originally mine. It belonged to my younger brother. Even so, I'm pretty sure I spent more time playing with it. I was the family nerd. Not much has changed in that respect. I remember wondering why he ended up getting the robot as a present instead of me, but that's how it worked out. Perhaps because I was already into my teens and it seemed like a better fit for my brother's age than mine. I received plenty of cool nerd-toys over the years though. I'll discuss some of them another time.
I came in possession of this Omnibot when my parents sold the house I grew up in, in 1996. It was rescued from a pile of abandon things that were pretty much going to be thrown or given away. That was also around the last time this baby was fired up and saw any action. The rechargeable lead acid battery didn't hold much of a charge anymore and the poor guy didn't quite move as fast as it once did because of that. I pondered the idea of getting a replacement battery but as of writing this, I have not. I'm not sure if it is still in working condition now. Somehow, even drained of power and collecting dust, it still looks cool to me.
Before taking the photo you see above, I originally planned to give it a good clean-up. I decided not to though, so that the image might reflect the fact that this a robot is more than 20 years old (about 24). Because of the lighting I chose for the picture, only the dirt on the base of the robot is visible. Sadly, the power light, eyes, and liquid crystal display are all simulated. The original photo didn't have much life to it, so I created the illusion of an Omnibot glowing with power to spare. The image kind of morphed in to an action shot in the process.
FYI - I experienced a vivid deja-vu moments ago while re-wording the last two sentences and looking at the simulated LCD in the retouched photo. What the hell causes that? What a strange feeling.
I could go on and on about all the fun I had with this awesome robotic pal back in the day, but I think that's enough for now. If you'd like to learn more about this amazing electronic toy of the 80's, check out the Wikipedia entry about it. For a more in-depth look at the Omnibot, there are dozens of detailed pictures, technical specs, and scans of the entire user manual at TheOldRobots.com.