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Exosapien on Designing & Building Real-Life Mechs

CEO of Exosapien Technologies Jonathan Tippett and Concept Artist Min Guen told us about the sources of inspiration behind Exosapien's mechs, detailed their approach to design, and explained how they had come up with the idea for the new ExoQuad model.


80.lv: Could you please introduce yourselves to our readers and tell us a bit more about Exosapien Technologies?

Jonathan Tippett, Founder/CEO: Exosapien Technologies was founded on the question, "What would you do if you could be a giant?" In pursuit of this answer, we have become the global pioneer in large-scale exoskeletal technology, developing proprietary motion control technology that amplifies human strength by up to 50x and allows problems to be solved with human skill and creativity as a scale never before possible. Applications range anywhere from sports and entertainment to disaster response, wildfire fighting, and beyond.

Min Guen, Concept Artist: My name is Min Guen and I'm the Concept Artist behind Exosapien's mechs. One of the things I enjoy most about my work generally and with Exosapien specifically is combining different mediums like 3D, VR, and 2D to create innovative and fictional designs.

Sources of Inspiration

80.lv: Where is the idea of these mechs coming from, and what are your main sources of inspiration?

Jonathan Tippett: The primary purpose of this tech was to celebrate and expand human skill. Beyond the technical requirement of amplifying the strength of the human pilot, as Lead Designer, I drew inspiration from my youth as a mountain biker, snowboarder, and practitioner of martial arts in terms of the dynamic experience we were seeking.

I've long had a fascination with heavy machinery, dinosaurs, and powerful off-road vehicles. All of these elements fed into the design. The form that our flagship prototype, the "PX1 Powered Exo-suit", or "Prosthesis: The Anti-Robot", as we affectionately refer to it, ultimately took was dictated by engineering first principles, budget constraints, end-use functionality, and, in part, by the mechs I'd seen throughout my life.

I grew up on Transformers and Battletech, and I nearly lost my mind when I saw the Loader in Aliens in 1986. When hyper-agile mechs like the ones in District 9 and Avatar came out in 2009, I was already three years into the design process, but I was energized by the knowledge that I was not the only one who fantasized about leaping, running, crushing, and throwing things like I was a giant.

Min Guen: Terminator 2 and Aliens left their mark on me. I'm a huge fan of Otomo Katsuhiro, the creator of Akira manga. Video games like Mass Effect, with its spaceships and beautiful mechanical designs, and the discovery of Syd Mead's (a legendary designer behind Blade Runner, Aliens, and Tron) works as a teenager had a big influence on my artistic taste and the inspiration behind my mech concepts.

The ExoQuad Model

80.lv: Please tell us more about the new model ExoQuad, it's got wheels for hands and legs, right? Why did you choose this direction?

Jonathan Tippett: What makes piloting a mech such an exciting and engaging experience is the ability to move a vehicle in all three dimensions, using your entire body, from inside the machine. In fact, one of our best-ever mech pilots was an F18 fighter pilot who likened it to flying an airplane – but without leaving the ground. The mech experience should make you feel substantially larger than yourself and faster than yourself.

Learning to pilot the PX1 takes 20-30 hours of seat time – much like learning to snowboard or windsurf. The top speed so far is around 6km/h.

Our goal with the ExoQuad was to develop a machine that delivered the unmatched "mech experience" but make it faster and a little less massive so it could be more easily transported and deployed and to shorten the learning curve, making it more accessible to all skill levels. 

Late last year, we were approached by the owners of Speed Vegas, the premier motorsports experience destination in Las Vegas. They had seen the PX1 in action and were fascinated by what the experience of piloting a mech would feel like. We're now working closely with them on a plan to make Speed Vegas the first place where people can come and experience these machines firsthand.

Min Guen: From the start, we had a general idea of the Exoquad's appearance. The team aimed to create a racing mech, a more compact version of Prosthesis and Ape Mobile, which would be easier to pilot and simply fun to operate. Our challenge was to design a mech that could feasibly function in the real world. So, in the end, it was a hybrid between Prosthesis + Ape Mobile and a little bit of inspiration from existing machines.

Jonathan Tippett: The ExoQuad has its limbs in a more stable quadrupedal arrangement than the PX1, so the need to balance the machine was eliminated. We put wheels on the ends of the limbs so an ExoQuad pilot could achieve fluid forward motion without having to master a quadrupedal gait.

We also simplified the controls so that the pilot only moves the wheels straight up and down, which preserves the 4-wheeled vehicle geometry and dynamics but still lets the pilot "fly the machine" in three dimensions (the only thing it can't do is drive sideways). At some point in this thought process, Min's "Ape Mech" came to mind, and we knew that he would be the ideal artist to bring our ExoQuad concept to life.

The Designing Process

80.lv: Can you share a bit about the way your design process is organized? How do you iterate and model the mechs?

Jonathan Tippett: Working with Min is like working with a mind reader. We are kindred spirits with mech dreams running through our heads. The fact that we had arrived at a similar architecture through two independent development paths was confirmation that this was an exciting idea to explore.

Using the "Ape Mech" as a jumping-off point, we exchanged references to establish a design language that would bring the Ape Mech into more of a "sports machine" aesthetic and leverage our proprietary motion control technology to bring it to life. With input from us about functional constraints dictated by engineering and the user experience we were looking for, Min iterated the design rapidly.

In parallel, we developed the engineering CAD model to ensure the technical feasibility of the design, and within a matter of weeks, the first conversation renders of the ExoQuad were produced. Min then created the photorealistic renders, using his skills with light and detail to bring the model to life.

Min Guen: For the initial concept design process, I employed Gravity Sketch, an intuitive Virtual Reality app that enables me to quickly sketch out ideas in 3D space. VR design allows me to better understand the scale of the vehicle and more rapidly make informed decisions. I can intuitively feel the distance between elements and test and immersively test different options.

Working with a library of Mech Squad 3D assets, I kitbashed different mechanical parts to create a convincing mechanism. This approach was ideal for the project, as it provided many prebuilt necessary components like wheels, hydraulics, and other parts that would make the design look believable. This allowed me to concentrate on the design aspect without needing to model every individual part from scratch. Enhancing the ExoQuad's structure and ensuring pilot safety required sculpting new frames and panels and adding reinforcement where needed. 

80.lv: What are the most essential tools for building a vehicle like that?

Jonathan Tippett: Our engineering team uses Solidworks exclusively. It allows us to produce an engineering level of detail, do computational structural analysis, and output models for digital fabrication. Layering that on top of the blistering speed with which Min and his software tools can produce compelling imagery and aesthetic detail is a powerful combination.

Min Guen: Safety is absolutely essential. We had to ensure that it would be both safe and intuitive to operate. We also wanted the ExoQuad to be unique and stand out from other mechs and vehicles out there, but we also had to ensure that it was feasible to build. It was a challenge, but we were able to strike a balance between creativity and practicality to create a design that was both functional and visually appealing.

80.lv: What's the overall influence of practicality and physics on your designs? How do you marry the impossible with the possible?

Jonathan Tippett: As an engineering company, we have no choice. Possible is the only option. Luckily for us, Min has a powerful mechanical intuition that keeps him from straying too far into the impossible – at least when that's what the task at hand requires. We provided high-level input about gross architecture and proportionality, and he created a concept that was extremely close to our engineering CAD but also conveyed the excitement and wild new human experience that this vehicle would create.

Min Guen: As a Concept Artist, I'm often tasked with designing things that don't exist in the real world yet must feel believable to the viewer. It's a delicate balancing act that requires a combination of experience, observation, and a basic understanding of how things work.

When designing machines, I try to incorporate elements that feel realistic and grounded in our world while being a "dreamer" and making sure the design looks interesting and exciting. Together with Exosapien's brilliant engineering team, we found a design that could turn a seemingly impossible dream into a reality.

The Roadmap

80.lv: What are the next steps for ExoQuad?

Jonathan Tippett: Building it. This is not just an exciting new machine, it also represents new markets and opportunities for our company. With the experience we have after seven years of developing and testing the underlying mech technology, it is a very attainable goal to go from concept to reality. That’s not to downplay the substantial amount of engineering work still ahead of us to ensure safety, dynamic stability, ergonomics, and reliability, but the core human interface technology is proven and tested so our job is to adapt our knowhow into this exciting new form factor and make this earthbound machine fly!

This will be an exciting next step in our larger vision to let people experience what it feels like to be a giant. The potential that lies ahead is enormous and we are always interested to hear from other technology pioneers and business innovators who want to be part of this journey.

Jonathan Tippett, Founder/CEO at Exosapien Technologies

Min Guen, Senior Concept Artist at Exosapien Technologies

Interview conducted by Kirill Tokarev

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