On the way to the EZ-Robot headquarters I was anticipating taking a step through the door into a scene of geniuses zipping around on Segways talking codeing on Bluetooth phones. I also secretly hoped I was going to witness the creation of the real-life Terminator. In reality, what I walked into was something completely different: a row of authentic retro arcade games, two overstuffed couches, and a giant bin full of take-out hoisin and sweet and sour sauce packets. Clearly, my initial phantasm wasn’t exactly spot on. In retrospect, the vibe was definitely less Genisys and way more WALL-E. There are probably a lot of people who would assume the HQ of a build-it-yourself robotics company would be ultra-modern in every aspect, but EZ-Robot founder and CEO DJ Sures wanted the homebase to be a comfortable one, not simply a high-tech haven. “There were a lot of sleepless nights in this space,” Sures says, looking around the open concept office. “Which is why we have all the video games and comfort – so people that are working here until three in the morning can take a break.” We are sitting on the couches at the entry of the office, painted a crisp white colour from front to back. Even though the company is moving out of the office located in the heart of Inglewood, the space has served the EZ-Robot team for three and a half years. “This space is formatted for makers. The office, robots, and boxes are white because it’s all about creativity. It’s a blank paper – this allows creativeness to just flow.” He glances behind us at the row of desks and industrial shelves holding a ridiculous amount of what looks to be disassembled robot parts. Sures begins to point out the names of the individual robots on the large counter at the front of the office. Between the ‘Adventure Bot’, the ‘Roli Rover’, the ‘Galapagos Bot’, or any of the other five robots available for purchase, there is an incredible amount of tech to choose from. He explains customers can buy entire robots, individual parts, face and motion activation sensors, and additional combos or controllers. He’s about to show me what these bots are capable of. Sures begins controlling the ‘JD Humanoid’ robot with his Apple Watch on the floor in front of the couches. The little robot who looks like he’s in an astronaut suit begins to dance and sing – he’s got better moves than any drunk aunt at a bar mitzvah, ever. After JD’s impeccable performance of Sir Sly’s You Haunt Me, the bot dramatically does a ‘mic drop’ gesture. “He travels with me everywhere. If I go to a friend’s house, he’s in my car with the seatbelt on. If I go on a date, he’s in my backpack,” he smiles and looks down at the bot. “I’m connected to these things emotionally more than I should be.” Sures set out to make the exclusive realm of artificial intelligence accessible to people who aren’t engineers and roboticists. From a makeshift lab in his basement he created different versions of what’s called a robot platform – or controller – which is the software that powers a robot. In 2011, Sures made a webpage to sell the 100-or-so controllers he’d made, and those things sold out so fast you’d think they were Kylie Lip Kits circa 2016. Because of this success, Sures was featured in Make Magazine where he wrote a comprehensive article on how to build a robot, which received a lot of positive feedback. “That really kicked off interest into what I was doing, which was telling anybody – whether you understood technology or not – that they could build a robot. That’s what I set out to do.” He continued to make user-friendly robots with the release of the ‘Box Bot’ three years ago. This was basically a robot starter-kit – it included a handful of pieces like a camera, voice recognition software, and online instructions where people could speak to the
robot controller and program it themselves. This robot didn’t just come in a box, it was made out of one. Customers were instructed to create the body of the robot using an empty Kleenex box and toilet paper rolls as limbs. At this point, Sures and his growing team decided they needed a product that had more consumer adoption, something they could use to engage education that didn’t require a glue gun or scissors. “Other companies making modular robot kits weren’t making it with authentic robot parts, cameras, and sensors that real robots use. My idea was to use real robot parts rather than fake ones to allow people to make robots that can do real stuff.” The idea for a robot with real-world capabilities using Clip’n’Play parts was ahead of its time, but the concept was undeniably brilliant. The only problem was, the technology Sures was promising his investors didn’t even exist in component form at the time. Therefore, essentially everything a robot needs to function had to be created or tweaked for the EZ-Robot platform: cameras, operating systems, Wi-Fi modules and code, algorithms for vision and machine learning, and apps to list a few. “If EZ-Robot was an extension cord, it would 100 per cent be covered in band aids – we patched it up quickly to get it out the door.” Thanks to some seriously smart people who developed the technology and debugged it along the way, EZ-Robot now offers powerful robots for experimentation, research and development, recreation, hobby, and STEM education (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics). I’m not going to pretend I understand all the tech lingo Sures is laying down in our current convo – but building a robot seems way more approachable than it did before I stepped into the building, and people in 106 countries would echo this approachability. In 2015, EZRobot sold around 15,000 units worldwide, pretty good for a start-up. The popularity of the products can be seen in posts and videos on the company’s Facebook page, and even in a television series based out of Ghana called Scrapbot, which centres on kids creating robots out of EZ-Robots and garbage. “I saw a video of a child in the States with his EZ-Robot helping him clean him room – grabbing things with his hand and putting into a toy box,” he says shaking his hands for emphasis. “Are you freaking kidding me?” Customers have been able to produce some surreal-sounding futuristic scenarios. One of Sures’ most challenging requests came from client who wanted to build a ‘butler-bot’ – basically like Rosie the robot-maid from The Jetsons – but way more manly. As he’s recalling this project he gestures toward the real-life butler-bot chilling by the front door of the HQ. It resembled one of those human-shaped punching bags that dudes with buzz cuts have in their unfinished basements. “I was sent a video of that robot pouring a glass of wine, and then navigating through the kitchen and handing it to the maker’s wife. She was talking to it, and she was conversing with it, it was awesome. The client gave that one to us and he made another one.” Even though this butler robot is no Terminator – it’s still pretty damn cool. Sures says this particular robot was a great example of why he continues to do what he does – people use his technology to make the seemingly unimaginable, a reality. “Every time I see a robot go, I know I just sold a smile to somebody.” Even though he didn’t create robots for some fantastical reason like world domination, or protection from an evil artificial intelligence system, Sures made them to enhance education and understanding, which is sweet too. And really, who needs a cyborg-assassinSchwarzenegger when you have a wine-pouring butler robot at your disposal? BRANDED | 31
Issue ten of Calgary's lifestyle magazine.