Meet the tech entrepreneur at the forefront of an ‘Olympics’ for robots in India
There is a combination of wonder and amusement in seeing robots performing human activities. Even a simple greeting or serving a dish by a robot looks entertaining.
Tech entrepreneur Supriya Rathi Bagri is expanding the horizons of robotic entertainment by combining her two loves, robotics and sports, through RoboVR, the startup she founded in 2016.
Supriya, who holds a master’s in intelligent robotics from Sheffield Hallam University in the UK, was introduced to the world and science of robotics during her second year of undergraduate studies at Shri Ramdeobaba Kamla Nehru College in Nagpur, Maharashtra. Supriya says she knew in 2008 that she wanted to pursue a career in the field of robotics.
A sportsperson herself, it was natural for the entrepreneur to bring robotics and sports together, which she considers the purest form of entertainment.
“In the end, the essence of sports remains because it has had a huge impact on my life in learning discipline, team work, and everything else,” says the national-level karate player and state-level basketball player for Maharashtra.
Today, the tech entrepreneur is giving a futuristic spin to these human sports with the help of robotics.
An Olympics for robots
Mumbai-based startup RoboVR organises an annual robotic sports championship, bringing together tech and robotics enthusiasts to build one to two-inch robots that can participate in any of the 30 listed human sports.
The sports include basketball, football, archery, boxing, cricket, golf, tug of war, skating, arm wrestling, cycling, relay race, and water sports such as rowing and swimming, among others. The list features an interesting cultural mix to compete as musicians with robots playing piano and drums.
Converging fictional fantasy with reality, RoboVR has also introduced the quintessential game of Quidditch from the fantasy world of Harry Potter to be played by drones divided into teams chasing a ball into a ring.
Supriya says the startup has secured a partnership with IIT-Bombay to hold the championship annually during Techfest, one of Asia’s largest technology festivals.
Throughout the year, the entrepreneur divides her time between formulating rules for each game, engaging in as many events and discourses in the field of robotics, consistent marketing, and working on sponsorships.
In December, as participants bring along their robots to compete in various sports in a 15,000 square feet arena every year since 2017, the tech entrepreneur watches her dream come alive. With the first championship organised in December of 2017 with 18 sports, Supriya has invested around Rs 30 lakh so far.
Notably, the 2019 championship was sponsored by the likes of Microsoft and the government programme National Skill Development Corporation (NSDC).
“While the 2020 championship cannot be guaranteed with the COVID-19 pandemic going on, we are planning to make it 10 times better,” Supriya says, adding that she hopes this will break even the cost for previous years.
The startup provides the rules in developing robotics for each game by specifying the size of the robot, and the entire layout for the arena. For example, rules for the basketball game states that the basket will be placed one foot above the ground and must be shot three feet away from it. Further, the robots designed for a basketball game should be of 12:12:12 inches.
However, Supriya explains that one robot can take part in many games, provided it meets the rules. “The mechanism is completely left to the team members,” she adds.
At present, RoboVr organises the championship with separate categories for school and college students. However, Supriya shares that she is looking to start another category for corporates as well, aiming for higher mechanisms.
One robot at a time
Supriya says that entertainment in robotics is growing at an unprecedented level. “We have a decade more to go until we bring human-sized robots playing in a human-sized arena and expect it to be a reality by 2035. Till then, we will have to constantly keep upgrading and update the rules and arenas,” the entrepreneur says, spelling out her plans and vision.
While all games are currently being manually controlled, she hopes to bring more automation into the playing field. On its website, RoboVR has marked a 2050 plan that reads: “Biggest entertainment with great technology showcase”.
Supriya explains they wish to grow towards the drone sector having as many as 20 to 30 of them dominating the sky for sports like Quidditch and cheerleading.
While entertainment is at the core of RoboVR, the startup is also creating a community of sportspersons, doctors, lawyers, architects, teachers, and fashion enthusiasts to delve into the future of robotics.
A pioneer in the field
Claiming to be the first entrepreneur to create an Olympics for robotics, Supriya is a pioneer in her own right. However, convincing sponsors and getting them on-board has been a difficulty.
Explaining what the startup does and their expectation from participants of the championship has been a challenge since the beginning. But Supriya shares that she would refer to the Hollywood robot boxing movie Real Steel and tell them the startup aims to make such robotic sport a reality in India.
She is also in constant touch with robotic clubs in various schools and colleges, looking out for new talent and innovations.
At the same time, she states that robotics is currently in a nascent stage to claim it is dominated by one gender, “It is a great time for anyone to claim this space because robotics is starting with this generation. It is an environment that is equal for all students so long as the interest is there,” she says.
Edited by Rekha Balakrishnan