MSCHF has designs on your feet.
Hardware is hard. You can browse the archives of this site and come up with dozens of bold attempts to make new consumer electronics gadgets work — some of them very close to home. But, like all startups, most hardware companies run into the hard core grind of turning atoms into something worth buying.
To commemorate the hardness of hardware, idea factory/art house MSCHF is releasing a set of 5 Dead Startup Toys as vinyl figurines that you can buy for $39.99 each or $159.99 for the set. It bills these as ‘iconic failed startups’ and the sales site offers a brief history of the rise and fall of each endeavor. They range from products that never really existed like the Theranos minilab to poorly timed early movers like Jibo to exercises in over-engineering like Juicero.
Given that I have spent much of my career absorbing and trying to understand the difficult and complicated process of bringing consumer hardware to market, I love these things. There could be a lens of malice here, but I choose not to see it that way. Fraud is fraud and the people behind Theranos and debacles like the Coolest Cooler have or will see the business end of the legal system.
But big visions and hardware dreams are not always so clearly pocketed into the hole of ‘failure’. Sometimes the hardware works but the supply chain doesn’t. Sometimes the vision is sound but the product is just too early. There are any number of reasons products fail — but (in as much as they were actually real) you often have to give it up for the teams of people and visionaries that wanted a thing to exist in the universe and dragged it kicking and screaming to that point. And off the cliffs.
The figures themselves are really well done, with crisp stamping and accurate detailing with readable text and nicely printed logos. Some of them are articulated as well, and accessorized. The Coolest Cooler gets its infamous blender and the Juicero has a removable (proprietary of course) ‘fresh veg’ pouch. The quality on these is quite high overall, I’d rank them up with some of the better novelty toys I’ve bought over the years — it’s not phoned in, much like the Cooler’s feature set.
The packaging, too, is quite impressive, each gets a customized box and the big set of all of them comes in a bigger rack box. Each one also comes with a ’cause of death’ on the back that tells you why each venture went under. MSCHF went the lengths to make this a pretty premium ‘toy’ drop, which is only fitting given that it’s a monument to physical products.
As with much of MSCHF’s work, there’s an element of ‘wait, is this legal’ as well, because there are likely a bunch of holes that the IP connected to these products fell into but some of those holes could still have legal entities attached. But that element of danger is what has made many of its projects resonate so far so I don’t think they’re worried.
After all, none of these products have the sign of the beast on them. Physically, anyway.
The unauthorized sneakers, which contain a drop of blood and cost $1,018, sold out in less than a minute last month.
The rapper’s new single, video and sneaker were merely the prelude to a brilliantly orchestrated main event: a virtuosic performance on Twitter.
Robotics took a small step into the wild world of SPACs this week, as Berkshire Grey announced its plan to go public by Q2. Setting aside some of the bigger issues with using the reverse merger route we’ve discussed plenty, BG is an ideal candidate for this next major step for a number of reasons.
First, the company’s got a track record and a ton of interest. I visited their HQ early last year, before the country shut down. Their plans were already fairly aggressive, with the wind of a recently raised $263 million Series B at their back. Retailers everywhere are already looking to automation as a way of staying competitive with the ominous monolith that is Amazon.
The mega-retailer has already acquired and deployed a ton of robots in fulfillment centers across the world. The latest number I’ve seen is 200,000. That comes from early 2020, so the number has no doubt increased since then. As Locus Robotics CEO Rick Faulk told me the other week, “There are investors that want to invest in helping everyone that’s not named ‘Amazon’ compete.” As with so many things these days, it’s Amazon versus the world.
Beyond its knack for raising money by the boatload, Berkshire Grey is the company you go to when you’re looking to automate a factory from the ground, up. The company says current warehouse automation is somewhere in the neighborhood of 5%. It’s a figure I’ve seen tossed around before, and certainly points to a ton of opportunity. BG’s offering isn’t lights-out automation, but it’s a pretty full-feature solution.
Locus, which just raised a healthy $150M Series E, represents a different end of the spectrum. Similar to offerings from companies like Fetch, it offers a more plug-and-play approach to automation. The lowered barrier of entry means a far less costly on-ramp. It also means you don’t have to shut down your warehouses for an extended period to implement the tech. It’s a more workable solution for situations with contract-based clients or temporary seasonal needs.
The company uses a RaaS (robot-as-a-service) model to deploy its technology. That’s something you’re going to be hearing more and more of around the industry. Like the HaaS (the “h” being hardware) model, the company essentially rents out these super-pricey machines, rather than selling them outright. It’s another way to lower the barrier of entry, and it gives the robotics companies the opportunity to offer continuous service upgrades.
It’s a model Future Acres, a Southern Californian agtech startup, is exploring as it comes out of stealth. Things are still early days for the company, which spun out of Wavemaker Partners (which also developed food service robotics company Miso). Among other things, the company is looking toward a crowdfunded raise by way of SeedInvest. I’ve not seen a lot of robotics companies take that route, so it will be interesting to see how that plays out.
Like logistics, agtech is shaping up to be a pretty massive category for robotics investments. FarmWise was ahead of that curve, announcing a $14.5 million round back in 2019 (bringing its total to north of $20 million). This week the Bay Area startup added crop dusting functionality to its weed-pulling robot.
NASA’s Perseverance understandably grabbed the biggest robotics headlines of the week. Landing with a parachute sporting the JPL motto, “Dare mighty things,” the rover sent back some of the best and most stunning images of Mars to date.
MSCHF’s livestream, on the other hand, was a bit more spotty. But aside from a fair number of interruptions with the feed, I suspect the company’s 40th drop went about as well as it could have hoped. Prior to announcing that it would mount a remote-control paintball gun to the back of Spot, Boston Dynamics issued a statement condemning the move:
Our mission is to create and deliver surprisingly capable robots that inspire, delight & positively impact society. We take great care to make sure our customers intend to use our robots for legal uses. We cross-check every purchase request against the U.S. Government’s denied persons and entities lists, prior to authorizing a sale.
MSCHF seemed to bask in the attention, even before its name was revealed to the public. At the very least, the stunt was a success from the standpoint of having ignited a conversation about the future of robotics. Boston Dynamics intrinsically understands that its robots sometimes freak people out — it’s a big part of the reason we get viral videos from the company, like the recent one featuring various robots dancing to The Contours.
The ACLU notably raised concern last year after footage from one of our events featuring Spot being used in the field by the Massachusetts police made the rounds. This week, the NYPD deployed a Spot robot yet again — this time at the scene of a home invasion in the Bronx (not to mention a new paint job and the name “Digidog” for some reason). Your own interpretation of those particular optics will likely depend on, among other things, your feelings about cops.
Certainly police departments have utilized robotics for decades for bomb disposal. It’s true that Boston Dynamics (along with much of the robotics industry) got early funding from DARPA. Spot in its current form isn’t much as far as war machines go, but I think these are important conversations to have at this stage in robotic evolution. Certainly there are military drones in the world, and have been for more than a decade.
That’s an important ethical conversation. As is the responsibility of robotics manufacturers once their machines are out in the world. Boston Dynamics does due diligence when selling its robots, but does it continue to be responsible for them once it no longer owns them? That’s certainly not a question we’re going to answer this week.
I’ve piloted Spot a number of ways in a number of different settings. I had the chance to control the robot for the first time at one of our Robotics events a number of years back, and drove one around an obstacle course at Boston Dynamics’ headquarters. More recently, I navigated it via web browser as a test of the robot’s new remote interface.
But a recent test drive was different. For one thing, it wasn’t officially sanctioned by Boston Dynamics. Of course, the highly sophisticated quadrupedal robot has been out in the world for a while, and a few enterprising souls have begun to offer a remote Spot walking experience through the streets of San Francisco.
The latest project form MSCHF isn’t that. That should come as no surprise, of course. The Brooklyn-based company is never that straightforward. It’s the same organization that gave us the “pirate radio” streaming service All The Streams.FM and that wild Amazon Echo ultrasonic jammer. More than anything, their events are comments — on privacy, on consumerism or this case, a kind of dystopian foreshadowing of what robotics might become.
Like the rest of the world, the company was fascinated when Boston Dynamics put Spot up for sale — but unlike most of us, MSCHF actually managed to cobble together $75,000 to buy one.
And then it mounted a paintball gun to its back.
Starting Wednesday, users will be able to pilot a Spot unit through MSCHF’s site, and fire off a paintball gun in a closed setting. The company calls it “Spot’s Rampage.”
“The stream will start Wednesday at 1 PM EST,” MSCHF’s Daniel Greenberg told TechCrunch. “We will have a four-camera livestream going and as long as you’re on the site on your phone, you will have an equal chance of being able to control Spot, and every two minutes the driver will change. It should go for a few hours.”
Ahead of the launch of Spot’s web portal, the company built an API to remotely control both Spot’s SDK and the paintball gun mounted to the robot’s back. It’s a setup Boston Dynamics isn’t particularly thrilled with. Understandably so. For a company that has long been dealing with the blowback of cautionary science fiction like Black Mirror, the optics of a third-party mounting a gun — even one that shoots paint — are less than ideal.
Boston Dynamics tells TechCrunch that it was interested in working with the company early on.
“They came to us with the idea that they were going to do a creative project with Spot,” a rep told TechCrunch. “They’re a creative group of guys, who have done a bunch of creative things. In our conversations, we said that if you want to cooperate with us, we want to make it clear that the robots will not be used in any way that hurts people.”
Boston Dynamics balked when paintball gun entered the conversation. On Friday, it issued the following statement through Twitter:
Today we learned that an art group is planning a spectacle to draw attention to a provocative use of our industrial robot, Spot. To be clear, we condemn the portrayal of our technology in any way that promotes violence, harm, or intimidation. Our mission is to create and deliver surprisingly capable robots that inspire, delight & positively impact society. We take great care to make sure our customers intend to use our robots for legal uses. We cross-check every purchase request against the U.S. Government’s denied persons and entities lists, prior to authorizing a sale.
In addition, all buyers must agree to our Terms and Conditions of Sale, which state that our products must be used in compliance with the law, and cannot be used to harm or intimidate people or animals. Any violation of our Terms of Sale will automatically void the product’s warranty and prevent the robot from being updated, serviced, repaired or replaced. Provocative art can help push useful dialogue about the role of technology in our daily lives. This art, however, fundamentally misrepresents Spot and how it is being used to benefit our daily lives.
The statement is in line with the language in Spot’s contract, which prohibits using the robot to do anything illegal, or to intimidate or harm people. The company says it does additional “due diligence” with potential customers, including background checks.
The application is something of a gray area where Boston Dynamics is concerned. MSCHF approached the robotics company with its idea and Boston Dynamics balked, believing it wasn’t in-line with the stated mission for the quadrupedal robots. The official Spot’s Rampage site notes:
We talked with Boston Dynamics and they HATED [emphasis theirs] this idea. They said they would give us another TWO Spots for FREE if we took the gun off. That just made us want to do this even more and if our Spot stops working just know they have a backdoor override built into each and every one of these little robots.
Boston Dynamics says the company’s “understanding of the interaction” is “inaccurate.”
“We get approached by marketing opportunities all the time to create a really fantastic and compelling experience,” the company adds. “Selling one robot is not that interesting. Creating an amazing interactive experience is really compelling for us. One of the things they pitched to us was an interactive idea. It’s an expensive robot and they wanted to create an interactive experience where anybody can control the robot. We thought that was super cool and compelling.”
Boston Dynamics says it pitched the idea of using Spot’s robot arm to paint the physical space with a brush, rather than using the paintball gun. The company also offered to send technicians to the site to help maintain the robot during the stream, along with a few models as back up.
MSCHF’s inclusion of the paintball gun is, ultimately, about more than simply painting the canvas. The image of the robot with a gun — even one that only shoots paint — is menacing. And that’s kind of the point.
“It’s easy to look at these robots dance and cavort and see them as cute semi-sentient little friends,” says Greenberg. “They’re endearing when they mess up and fall over. We’ve adopted the trappings of that scenario by creating a ‘bull-in-a-china-shop’ scenario. Still, it’s worth remembering the big versions of Spot [Big Dog] were explicitly military mules, and that their public deployments tend to be by city agencies and law enforcement. At the end of the day, Spot is a terrestrial UAV – when you get to drive this robot and experience the thrill of pulling the trigger your adrenaline spikes — but, we hope, a few minutes later you feel a distinct chill. Anyone in their right mind knows these little cuties will kill people sooner or later.”
While early Boston Dynamics robots were, indeed, funded by DARPA for use as transport vehicles, the company is quick to distance itself from even the remotest hint of ominous imagery. Boston Dynamics came under fire from the ACLU after showcasing footage of a Spot being used in Massachusetts State police drills onstage at a TechCrunch robotics event.
The company told TechCrunch at the time:
Right now we’re at a scale where we can pick and choose the partners we engage with and make sure that they have a similar deployment and a vision for how robots are used. For example, not using robots in a way that would physically harm or intimidate people. But also have a realistic expectation for what a robot can and cannot do.
As MSCHF prepares to launch its event, the company is echoing those sentiments.
But the question of whether the company can put the toothpaste back in the tube remains. In cases of violations of the Terms of Service, the company can opt not to renew the license, which effectively deactivates it the next time a firmware update is due. Other cases could essentially void the warranty, meaning the company won’t service it.
A paintball gun being fired in a closed space likely doesn’t fall under harm, intimidation or illegal activity, however. So it’s not entirely clear whether Boston Dynamics has a direct course of action in this case.
“This is something we’re evaluating now, around this particular use case,” Boston Dynamics says. “We do have other terms of service in there, regarding modification of the robot in a way that makes it unsafe. We’re trying to understand what the implications are.”
Boston Dynamics (whose sale to Hyundai is expected to close in June) has devoted a good deal of time to showcasing the various tasks the robot can perform, from routine inspections at hazard sites to the complex dance moves it’s performed in a recent viral video. MSCHF’s primary — and, really, only — use is an interactive art piece.
“To be honest, we don’t have any further plans [for the robot],” says Greenberg. “I know we won’t do another drop with it as we do not do repeats so we will just have to get really creative. Maybe a waking cup holder.”
Warning: Neither Hermès nor Birkenstock has approved this product.