Saturday, December 09, 2006

Staring with glowing red eyes at a young woman strolling by, bartender Chapok slowly extends his arm to offer her a gin and orange.

She takes the glass, murmurs a flustered "thank you" and walks away while the cocktail-mixing robot turns his attention back to a row of bottles.

"People are interacting, they are actually talking to my robot," smiles David Calkins, who teaches robotics at San Francisco State University.

"This is fantastic, exactly what I was hoping for."

Chapok is one of around 30 robots at Vienna's annual Roboexotica, which showcases how home-built machines deal with the modern pastime of hanging out in bars.

Robots were invited to demonstrate their skills in categories like mixing cocktails, serving drinks and snacks, bar conversation and smoking cigarettes and cigars.

"It's all about the flair, the atmosphere and the personality that a robot can have," said Magnus Wurzer, ducking a bunch of cocktail cherries launched by a robot in one corner of the hall to another holding a drink at the other end.

The cherries miss their target and hit onlookers.

"The robots shouldn't be efficient," Wurzer said. "They shouldn't behave like they were in a factory, they should be cultured and urbane."

In 1999, Wurzer, a 36-year-old robot lover and artist, helped launch the cocktail robot convention Roboexotica ( in Vienna.

They are not trying to build commercially viable robots or gadgets that look like humans. Rather they aim to assemble machines that display a unique mechanical charm and personality.

Wurzer's favorites from years past include a robot that scrounged drinks from passers-by, and one that offered to light visitors' cigarettes but ending up smoking them itself.

Chapok, who resembles the tin man in the "Wizard of Oz," is one of the robots making a name for himself this year.

Wired to a row of bottles from which he mixes his drinks, Chapok is linked to a computer that provides him with a bar-room repartee not strong on subtlety.


"Hey you sweet thing, have you ever had a date with a robot?" he asks women customers.

"You want what? Order yourself a drink for a man, you girl!" is his way of warming up male customers.

Onlookers respond with laughter and astonished looks. "One of the reasons why people go to bars is to interact," said Calkins, trying to untangle the wires protruding from his robot.

"And if you have a robot that talks to you and insults you ... you can be sure that people won't forget him.

"Of course I could build a robot that irons shirts or something and that would be just as difficult. But having a cocktail robot is just much more fun and even if your robot doesn't work, you still have a party."

A few meters down the hall, Robert Martin is showing off Robomoji, a cupboard-sized machine with rattling chains and steel gears mixing its creator's favorite drink, a mojito.

"I just love to develop my robot, I have worked on it for the past four years and every year it goes a step further," said the 32-year-old German technician as he fixed the ice crusher.

"Next year I'll get the bit fixed where it stirs the drink and then puts in a straw."

Copyright © 2006 Reuters Limited.

Cool Cocktails: The Hottest New Drinks and the Best of the Classics

The Gulf Bio War: How a New AIDS-like Plague Threatens Our Armed Forces