Robot-maker with Roseville ties picks fight with Japanese robot

Gui Cavalcanti and Matt Oehrlein’s MegaBot is emblematic of how Oehrlein describes their company, MegaBots. The front-end is all about entertainment while the back is a high-end robotics company developing serious robotics. (courtesy of Matt Oehrlein)
Gui Cavalcanti and Matt Oehrlein’s MegaBot is emblematic of how Oehrlein describes their company, MegaBots. The front-end is all about entertainment while the back is a high-end robotics company developing serious robotics. (courtesy of Matt Oehrlein)
MegaBot in action, firing paint projectiles at more than 100 miles per hour. (courtesy of S. N. Jacobson)
MegaBot in action, firing paint projectiles at more than 100 miles per hour. (courtesy of S. N. Jacobson)
Cavalcanti and Oehrlein as seen in their “goofy challenge video.” If everything works perfectly, they hope to stage the fight July 4, 2016. “That would be amazing,” Oehrlein says. (courtesy of Matt Oehrlein)
Cavalcanti and Oehrlein as seen in their “goofy challenge video.” If everything works perfectly, they hope to stage the fight July 4, 2016. “That would be amazing,” Oehrlein says. (courtesy of Matt Oehrlein)

When we last met our aspiring hero, Roseville Area High School grad and hopeful robot battle league magnate, Matt Oehrlein, he was sweating out the last days of a Kickstarter crowdfunding campaign aimed at making MegaBots — the fighting league — a reality.

A year later, Oehrlein has switched coastsóBoston to Oakland, following that MegaBots dream — and while the Kickstarter moonshot came up short, he and his robotics partner have found corporate backing and have slightly switched gears.

Now, they're picking transcontinental fights with other robots.

Form like MegaBot

Last November, the Review spoke to Oehrlein, now 29, about his five month old start-up company, MegaBots. At the time, he and his co-founders Gui Cavalcanti and Andrew Stroup were attempting to raise $1.8 million to literally kickstart what they envisioned as a robot battle sports league, shown on major sports networks across the county.

Oehrlein and his cohorts needed the money to build two very large robots — large meaning 15-foot tall, seven-ton robots — that would be, in his words, "basically giant potato cannons," blasting four-pound paint-filled cannonballs at 120 miles per hour at each other. These robots would be the launching pad for the league.

A class of 2004 RAHS grad, Oehrlein says he was a proud "band nerd," playing in both the pep and jazz bands at the school. From there, he studied electrical engineering at the University of Minnesota, continuing those studies in a two year master's program with a focus on control theory and robotics.

He followed an internship to Detroit that turned into a job, and for a time was president of a "makerspace" — a non-profit workshop for carpentry, technology, metal working and crafting, where people share tools and ideas — called i3 Detroit.

There, Oehrlein created a mind-controlled flamethrower called the "Mindflame," a mere hop, skip, and mechanized jump from the MegaBots idea.

Through the makerspace scene, he met Cavalcanti and Stroup. Those two met while working on the Discovery Channel show, "The Big Brain Theory: Pure Genius," an engineering competition show.

Stroup and Cavalcanti came up with the "seed idea" for giant fighting robots, and brought Oehrlein in for his electrical and programing skills. The three come together in Boston, formed a company, made a short movie about their robot dreams and posted it all to Kickstarter.com, with a goal to crowdfund that $1.8 million.

"Boston is a good place to build robots," Oehrlein told the Review last year.

Deus ex machina

The Kickstarter campaign came up short. Frozen forever is the trio's final fundraising total, $65,319, on the MegaBots Kickstarter page, just less than 4 percent of the original goal. Help, though, somewhat out of the blue, came pretty quickly, Oehrlein says.

Autodesk, a company that makes architecture, engineering, construction, manufacturing and media software, approached the MegaBots guys with a marketing contract following a Las Vegas tradeshow meeting in December.

"They said, 'we like your vision and we like where you're going with this,'" Oehrlein said, describing the contract offer as a win-win type of situation. In February, MegaBots moved to Oakland, California. Oehrlein describes the move as a logical step.

"It was kind of two-fold, maybe even three-fold. It's just closer to Silicon Valley, so we can pull from he top-tier tech talent," he explains. "Number two was to be closer to investors and our corporate sponsor, Autodesk, so we can work more closely."

"Three fold," he says, “We're actually closer to LA, now, so we're closer to this entertainment hub.î

With Autodesk's assistance, MegaBots completed one fighting robot, which was being built when the Review last spoke to Oehrlein

Just after the coast switch, MegaBots lost one of its founding core; Oehrlein says Stroup left the fighting robot biz to go work at the White House. Stroup's Linkedn page lists his title as director of product and technology, White House Presidential Innovation Fellows.

It was following the move and the shake-up at MegaBots that Oehrlein says he and Cavalcanti had another bright idea, involving their single, existing fighter.

"We have one robot — let's find another robot to fight," he says, describing their train of thought, wondering if people would pay to see it. "We know about this robot in Japan, let's challenge it to a fight!"

Boasts in the machine

The name of the Japanese robot is Kuratas. Oehrlein's battle bot is aptly named MegaBot; the two will square off, he says, in about a year.

It all started off, Oehrlein says, with a "goofy challenge video" — he and Cavalcanti strolling through a warehouse over a patriotic tune while people weld and cut things and MegaBot blasts cars with its paintball cannon. The video has 5.3 million views.

"You have a giant robot, we have a giant robot," Oehrlein says into the camera wearing aviator sunglasses and an American flag as a cape, addressing Suidobashi Heavy Industry, which owns Kuratas. "You know what needs to happen: We challenge you to a duel."

Kuratas accepted the challenge — making Oehrlein think, "Oh my god, these guys are just as crazy as us" — and stipulated that the fight be limited to robot hand to hand combat. That stipulation might not hold.

"We'll probably have like one gun, and one sword thing on our robot," he says.

From now until the targeted fight date of July 2016, Oehrlein says some things need to be figured out, like where the fight will take place, a large sports stadium perhaps (he says the Roseville OVAL is an unlikely venue, alas), which media partners will be worked with and how to make the whole thing plausibly safe.

"How do we make this fight super entertaining but also not die?" he asks. "It's a pretty inherently dangerous thing...Insurance is fun.”

The two partners will pilot MegaBot — Oehrlein as the gunner with Cavalcanti driving — and there are plenty of modifications yet to be made to the fighting chassis in order to make it ready to go.

In all, the single fight is still a means to an end: a fighting robot league.

"At the end of the day, we're in it to make giant robots fight each other," Oehrlein says, adding that he and Cavalcanti have another, slightly smaller scope Kickstarter campaign in the works.

"We're going to try this again, we learned a lot," Oehrlein says, saying the previous goal was a bit too lofty, too broad. The upcoming campaign is all about getting MegaBot ready for the fight.

"OK America, let's make it the best Japanese ass-kicking robot we've ever seen," he says, adding later, "Hopefully [the campaign] will be a lot more successful."

To learn more about MegaBots and to keep tabs on the upcoming Kickstarter campaign, go to www.facebook.com/megabotsinc.

Mike Munzenrider can be reached at mmunzenrider@lillienews.com or 651-748-7813. Follow him on Twitter @mmunzenrider.

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