John Rieping/The Madera Tribune
From left, fair event coordinator Barbara Leach, MadTown Robotics mentor Rohi Zacharia and robotics coach Ranjit Chahal inspect Lumber Town, which will soon also be Tech Town.
Fairs have long exposed the public to technological innovation. The World’s Fair introduced attendees to the telephone in 1876. The X-ray machine in 1901. The electrical outlet (1904). Television (1939). Video chats (1964). Touch screens (1982).
That legacy will continue Sept. 8-11 during the Madera District Fair as its Lumber Town exhibit will also become Tech Town with displays of virtual reality, robotics and 3D printing. It will also feature charging stations for smart phones and other devices – a boon for those taking advantage of the many Pokemon Go stops on the fairgrounds.
Tech Town owes its existence to a suggestion from a new Junior Fair Board member who is a senior at Madera South High School.
“In an interview process, we asked what is maybe missing at Madera fair or what’s something you’d like to put your fingerprint on this year as a board member,” said Barbara Leach, events coordinator for the fair. “And he said, well, there isn’t very many screens or technology in the fair.”
The fair had hosted MadTown Robotics in 2015, “which was great – super successful (with) lots of traffic through there,” she said. So the fair “asked robotics to maybe expand. They had some things on their dreams and their hearts to do. So we’re giving them space to do that.”
MadTown Robotics will show its 2016 competition robot, a VEX IQ robot “and one of our old robots that shoots balls and stuff,” said Ranjit Chahal, MadTown Robotics coach.
VEX IQ is a robotics product line designed for use by young students and their teachers.
“You know how when we grew up we did Legos (interlocking bricks)? We built them and stuff,” he explained. “Well, now you pretty much do the same thing (with VEX IQ) but you can add a controller, a ‘brain’ and some motors and some sensors.”
Chahal hopes to work with Madera Unified School District to have VEX IQ robotics kits used with students from third through sixth grade.
“Our goal is for every school to have a team,” Chahal said. “They can have multiple teams if they want to, but at least one team per school and then Madera High School will host competitions and stuff. That is our current plan. It’ll be implemented either this year or next year.”
Madera High School’s robotics program will also become district-wide soon as the team expands to include Madera South High School students this school year and those of a planned new campus later on, “in 2019 or whenever it’s available,” Chahal said.
Robotics programs help students apply what they learn in their classes, qualify participants for college scholarships and give them “a leg up” in getting hired with “some of the coolest companies like Google, Tesla (and) NASA,” he said. FIRST Robotics, a youth organization that holds robotics competitions, offers $16 million in scholarships, according to Chahal.
“It’s kind of like sports,” he said. “If you want your kid to be the next LeBron James you don’t start him when he gets in college. You start him when he’s 5, 6, 7 years old and you get him involved. You have him practice drills … By the time they get to college, they’re like pretty much All-Stars … We have a lot of kids who go on to start their own businesses. ... One of our kids last year is going on a full ride to UCLA.”
Tech Town will not be limited to robotics however. Local entrepreneur Cameron Cernuda agreed to display a 3D printer he invented and allow fairgoers to request plastic objects to be printed. The talk of 3D printing also prompted Chahal and MadTown Robotic’s mentor, Rohi Zacharia, to propose a virtual reality setup at the fair this year.
“Luckily we have access to this system,” Zacharia said, “so we thought it was a key component to bring forward to the fair, and they seem to be pretty excited about it as much as we were.”
Fair attendees will be able to get tickets to briefly wear HTC Vive virtual reality equipment during the four-day event. Vive uses a computer, a headset containing a screen for each eye, and two handheld controllers to seemingly immerse users in the world of a video game. Two Vive systems will be set up in Tech Town.
“There will (also) be screens, which the fair has been able to team up with their coordinators to get ... so that people who are not (involved) in the machine can actually see what they’re experiencing,” Zacharia said.
The headset and video game controllers are wired into a computer, but participants will not be sitting down for the experience. As they move in real life, they will move around the game’s world. Because of this, the team will keep an eye on game players.
“Sometimes people will kind of forget they’re tethered and they’re in a virtual environment,” said Zacharia. “So we have to kind of keep an eye on them and make sure they don’t wander off into a spot where they’re not supposed to be.”
The games will include a tongue-in-cheek game, “Job Simulator,” that allows players to try out parodies of various work situations. Other games haven’t been decided upon, but the team is considering simulations of climbing and archery.
“We’re going to try and work out some of the details … (so) we can get as many people through but still have them where they can get a good experience,” Zacharia said. “Because you’d be surprised how even 10 minutes can go by pretty quick when you get inside there and you start actually playing the games.”
But the fair’s new Tech Town, he hopes, will be more than just a good time with robotics, virtual reality and 3D printing. “It’s an opportunity for somebody who again doesn’t have the ability to get these systems to be able to experience (them), and maybe be encouraged then to go into that field,” he said.