In Defense of Verbot


The League, he about to retire from this blogosphere, has rekindled in me memories of Verbot: Tomy’s miraculous robot for kids toy. Let me take you back to the Christmast of 1984 (or was it 1985?) on a not-at-all-snowy Christmas day in Houston, Texas.

Ah, Verbot, you cute little guy, with your hard plastic shell head, your friendly pseudo-Japanese visage, and your weird white microphone with a dangling black cable antenna… Thanks to incessant advertising during Transformers, everyone knew the sacred name of this proto-Cylon. Verbot was undoubtedly the toy of aspiration in my 4th grade Christmas year. I even recall in art class that the Y bechromosomed were DRAWING verbot on those vast expanses of manilla paper. I think it would be fair to say that we had Verbot on the brain.

Having incredibly generous parents, come the dawn of the 25th of December, I had a Verbot.

Here’s how it would work.

  1. Turn on Verbot
  2. Hold in a chest button that corresponded to an action
  3. Repeat the command you wanted to associate to the action
  4. Hope that the solid red LED would light, indicating successful recording
  5. More often than not it would take 3-4 repetitions to take
  6. Now, attempt to repeat in proper voice, tone, and timbre the sounds that you associated to each command. A typical session would be:
  7. Forward. Forward. No !@%!@!@$!@% I !@$!@%!@ said !@%$!@% you stupid !@%$!@%. Right. Forward. Forward. Pick Up. Pick-up. Pick-up. Lift. Forward. Forward. NOTE: Cursing is optional, usually on the part of the parent wondering why the heck Santa brought this stupid !@$!@%!@% that doesn’t work.
  8. Realize that 6 commands is not greatly entertaining after about 30 minutes.
  9. Power Verbot down
  10. Think of something cool you meant to do with Verbot, usually about 40 seconds after you slid his switch to OFF.
  11. Loop.

I recall on Christmas Day eve, my father and I used Verbot to pick up a mini Pepperidge farm canister of parmesean cheese and move it across the dining table. That’s right, Verbot, petit garçon.

These were the good times.

My father seemed to have better luck with the Verbot because he understood what it was like to have an object of limited understanding, few interesting activities, and limitless capacity to ignore basic instructions: he had 2 kids already.

Speaking in level tones he seemed to be able to get Verbot to stack blocks, something like brain surgery with a cauliflower stalk. What can I say, anyone who grew up coaxing extra horses out of a GTO (think Luke Skywalker) in the canyons of Amarillo must have had a John Connor like grasp of machines.

But as all toys invariably go, at one point Verbot ended his playble life and was superseded by the next wave of kiddie conditioning.

I suspect that Verbot may have been the tipping point for many of us. Combining Verbot (effectively a Turtle) with an introduction to LOGO gave, I think, a generation its first taste of practical robotics. Just last month at Rubyconf there was a session on programming mini-controllers with Arduino.

I wonder how many of us first had our imagination kindled by these ‘bots.