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Glory to the Machine!

For the past two years, my younger brother has been heavily involved in his high school's robotics team, which is tied directly into the FIRST Robotics Competition. It's a pretty amazing program designed to add some flash to the often seemingly stale, mind-numbing field of engineering. The idea is inherently appealing to me--kids building robots to play sports strikes me as the ultimate, real-life video game--but I didn't really realize how exciting it could be in practice until I went to one of the regional qualifiers held in a sports arena at San Jose State University last year. Blaring music, mascots, color-coordinated cheering sections, and a high-energy MC keeping the crowd perpetually pumped. The game itself was also a sight to behold, with six robots ranging from four to six feet in height and from 100 to 120 pounds in weight fighting it out on the playfield. I can remember thinking to myself "I am watching my brother pilot a robot at a varsity-level sporting event. I am living in the future."

My brother's team, the Tech High Phantoms (#675), and their robot Gloria Machina, competed at two regional qualifiers this year, making their way into the semifinals at San Jose State University, and the quarterfinals at the University of California at Davis. I went to both regionals to cheer on the team, and while I had never understood the emotional investment that hardcore sports fans put into their teams, now I get it. I understand why they always refer to the team with the inclusive "we". "We had a really good season this year." The highs when they won were sublime, and had me jumping up out of my seat and screaming at the top of my lungs. I dug my fingers into my girlfriend's leg when they were one game away from getting knocked out of the quarterfinals because of the stress, and when they did lose it left me in a funk for the rest of the day. I can't even imagine what the pressure felt like for the team itself--the pit crew, the programmers, the mechanical engineers, and likely most of all, the pilots. These nerds are getting to experience the visceral glory and agony usually reserved for athletes.

While I knew that the top three teams from each regional qualifier would be invited to compete at the National Championships in Atlanta, I was unaware that there were two additional awards given out at each regional qualifier for exceptional teams who would also be invited to Atlanta. I was driving back to San Francisco from Davis, bummed out that we had been knocked out during the quarterfinals. It ended the season for the team, and since my brother's a senior, it would be his last time competing in FIRST. But then I got the call--we had gotten the Engineering Inspiration award, and we were going to Atlanta!

My dad and my brother went as spectators to the nationals last year, and I'm told that the regionals are peanuts in comparison. They fill the Georgia Dome with four playfields going simultaneously, with the adjacent convention center serving as a pit area for the hundred of individual teams. Imagine March Madness, except it takes place over three days, and there are robots. It's like Nerdvana. Not wanting to miss such a spectacle, especially when our team has made it further now than they have in their seven-year history, I'm packing my bags and heading out to Atlanta to watch it all unfurl next week. With DV camera in hand I intend on covering the event embedded-reporter-style, so expect to see something up on the site, possibly during the competition. You'll also be able to watch live video streams of the championships courtesey of NASA, and if you do, be sure to root for the Tech High Phantoms, Team 675!

Gloria Machina! Glory to the machine!

UPDATE: Team 675 has been assigned to the Galileo Field. Additionally, I'm told that DirecTV subscribers will be able to tune into channel 376 on Friday and Saturday April 13 and 14 between 9AM and 6PM EST to watch the competition live. How's that for media exposure!