Chair today, gone tomorrow
One of the small pleasures of living in Davis is its collection of oddball vehicles. I’m not talking about your run-of-the-mill Priuses (Priusi?), which have apparently replaced Volvos as the sensible street bling of choice for academics. I’m saying the solar and alt-fuel prototypes, street-legal golf carts, and rainbow-dipped Merry Pranksterish hippie rides that pop up now and again. Just the other day I scurried across Third Street in front of a giant red Radio Flyer child’s wagon that was jacked way up above chrome exhaust pipes. Even the city plays along, operating an authentic old double-decker London bus. Then, there’s RoboChair.
A recliner on wheels—I wouldn’t be shocked to find a dealership in Roseville, but the idea seemed a tad sloth-like for Bike Town, U.S.A.—RoboChair is the Homer Simpson-esque brainchild of Devin Castellucci, Sac City College freshman, mechanical-engineering major and proud alum of the Davis Senior High School Robotics Team.
In the faculty parking lot one recent sunny afternoon, Devin gave me a demo. A cheerful sort, he is prone to pointing an index finger skyward, professor style, for emphasis. Devin climbed into RoboChair and kicked back, deploying the footrest and exposing the machine’s mechanical guts. With a big grin, he pushed forward on the joystick, which promptly ripped off in his hand.
“Hmm,” he said, adjusting the black electrical tape securing joystick to armrest. “Let’s make sure this sucker’s calibrated. You have no idea how touchy this thing gets.”
RoboChair lurched forward, then jerked back. “Notice how little I’m moving the joystick,” he said, pointing up before zipping away. Suddenly, RoboChair was doing Devin’s bidding, and a lot faster than you’d expect.
“It’ll get up to a good jog,” Devin said as he zoomed back around, a streak of pink cheeks and moldy upholstery.
With separate motors for both rear wheels and a turning ratio of zero, RoboChair is nimble. And fast, particularly if you’re looking to make a beer run without doing much more than moving your wrist.
“Seven miles an hour is about tops,” Devin said as he jerked to a halt. Checking out the chair, I was struck by two thoughts: 1) This is how Stephen Hawking might tailgate, and 2) Where’s the cup holder?
Soon, it was my turn to ride. From the captain’s seat, RoboChair has that jerk-you-around feeling common to bumper cars. There’s no differential, so to drive straight you have to continually stop and readjust your heading, like a sailboat tacking into the wind. But it was certainly the first time I’d driven around a parking lot with my feet up in a lounge chair. All in all, not a bad day.
A close-up revealed the chair to be festooned with buttons from competing robotics clubs (“We put the ‘eek’ in geek—Sierra Vista High School”). Devin explained that RoboChair is, in effect, a marketing device. It serves as unofficial mascot and fund-raising hook for the Davis High robotics team, which exists entirely on donations (RoboChair was built essentially for free, down to the peeling easy chair nabbed from a pickup truck en route to the dump). As such, it’s a way to pique the interest—and hopefully the checkbook—of the robotically disinclined everyman strolling through the farmers’ market. Robotic clubs may be considered nerdy, but an electric barcalounger? Now you’ve got yourself a bake sale.
Judging by the responses to Devin’s RoboChair page on DavisWiki.org (“It looks frickin awesome,” “fuck yes”), I’d say it’s working.