Rotato vs. the Shipping Carton
  November 23, 2008

A few weeks ago, Maker Faire visited Austin. Like any
good girl-geek, I merrily hustled down to the Expo center to sample a
smorgasbord of nerd delights. One of the main attractions that piqued my
interest was the RoboGames, a contest in which teams custom-built,
remote-controlled robots shred each other to bits in creative ways. The goal of
the contest is to incapacitate the other ‘bot.

So these teams built all these sophisticated robots, heavily
armored and reinforced and designed to fight other robots. These things were
tough – thick metal and highly maneuverable. Most of them could run upside
down. Each robot featured a different mauling mechanism – one spit fire (shown here),
another attempted to scoot under its opponent and flip it, one had a giant
pneumatic arm that pounded other robots, and one called Rotato had a large
rotating blade designed to chop its opponents to bits... more than 20 pounds of
titanium spinning at 2500 RPM.

After Rotato fought an opponent (I don’t remember who won –
I think he did), the announcer informed us we were in for a special treat. Rotato’s
plastic shipping carton had been damaged in transit, so they were going to let
him tear it up for the audience's enjoyment (cue loud appreciative noises from
the spectators). While the size of a small fridge, the shipping carton was just
a strong plastic box like you’d ship material to tradeshows in. Wow – no
contest, right? Custom-designed shredding robot vs. shipping carton that UPS
had already partially destroyed!

 So Rotato starts in on the shipping carton, and immediately chops
it in half with his blade. Carton debris covers the floor. The crowd goes wild.

 And then… Rotato gets stuck on his own debris! He can no
longer move, and his controller has to come out and rescue him. Rotato loses to
a partially-disabled piece of plastic.

 Viewing the world through the blinders of product
development, I immediately thought to myself, “Wow, I guess they didn’t
consider *every* combat case when they designed Rotato! Here’s a shining
example of how important it is to consider all possible use cases for your
product up front.”

Of course, no matter how thorough your use-case analysis is,
some knuckle-dragger valuable customer is going to try to use your product to
do something it wasn’t designed to do. In those cases, as with Rotato, just
hope that your “failures” have unintended benefits… like making the crowd go