Rise of the robots

Oak Park Arts District gets new robot manufacturing, digital art biz

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By Timothy Inklebarger

Staff Reporter

In the fall of 2013, computer software designer Jason Huggins was at the top of his game, having launched two tech startups that test browser and mobile app compatibility, plus a stint with tech giant Google.

That's when he got the call from the White House.

They needed his help with a problem that was making international headlines and threatening the centerpiece of the president's agenda — the rollout of HealthCare.gov, the government's brand new website for enrollment in the Affordable Care Act, also known as Obamacare.

Thousands attempted to enroll in the new program online, causing long waits for web pages to load, frustrated users, and accusations by the program's detractors that the health insurance program was a failure.

Huggins' first instinct was to run the other way, but when the world's most powerful elected official calls on you for service, you go, he said.

"Yes, you have to fix the problem, but is this just an ugly mess that you don't want to be part of?" he asked himself.

Huggins, an Oak Park resident, spent the next two months solving the problem with a team of Silicon Valley's elite. A few quick fixes cut the wait times in half, and within a few months the website was running smoothly.

Now the tech guru has opened a robot manufacturing company in Oak Park that tests cellphone application compatibility, but Huggins said software compatibility testing machines are only the beginning.

In the next few weeks, Huggins and company will be opening a manufacturing operation in the former La Majada restaurant site at 226 Harrison St.

Huggins made headlines in 2013 in publications such as Wired, Time magazine and the Wall Street Journal for creating a robot that could play the then-popular Angry Birds video game.

The idea for the machine started out as an art project, Huggins said, but as the machine got more notoriety and began to sell online to manufacturing companies, he decided to launch Tapster Robotics.

The Tapster robots Huggins builds are an extension of the browser software compatibility testing platform Selenium, which he created in the late 2000s. The Selenium software eventually grew into Sauce Labs, Huggins' first tech startup.

Although many of the concepts used in Selenium can be used for testing cell phone applications, Huggins noted, many of the tests cannot be performed in a virtual environment, meaning that it takes a physical person pressing cellphone buttons to run compatibility tests.

That's where Tapster robots come in, he said.

The robots are programmed to physically press the buttons on the phone during the testing phase for application development. The technology has the ability to save large manufacturers hundreds of thousands of dollars, he added.

The prototype that played Angry Birds, for instance, was an exercise in bringing his software into the physical world, but after showing it, he was approached by a large company in need of the technology.

"I didn't know that mega-corporation had a massive secret robot lab but they did, and now I'm realizing every big company that makes something has a secret robot lab because they have to test it," he said.

With the rise of digital touchscreen technology, Huggins said, manufacturers of automobiles and other devices are finding themselves in need of software compatibility technology.

"They're also spending tons of money repurposing really big robots that would otherwise be used for manufacturing," he said. "Those robots are hundreds of thousands of dollars sometimes. Mine is … way less expensive, so they were super-excited that maybe they could save $100,000 with this shaky little robot that plays angry birds."

Although Tapster is a robot manufacturing company, he wants to continue following his passion for making technological art projects — that's why he's excited to be in the Oak Park Arts District.

Huggins spent years walking by empty storefronts along Harrison and now hopes to be part of the solution in revitalizing that business district.

He wants to find a "balance between paying the bills with things like these boring robots that solve problems and making things that effectively don't solve any problems but are beautiful art projects."

CONTACT: tim@oakpark.com

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