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Sunday, February 25, 2024

Here’s a fascinating video about robotic mice solving mazes

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Micromouse tournaments have been happening since the late 1970s, a deceptively simple form of robotics competition where entrants design small robots that must autonomously navigate a maze from start to finish as quickly as possible. A new video from documentary creators Veritasium highlights what it calls “The Fastest Maze-Solving Competition on Earth” and the deep struggle to optimize both physical engineering and robotics.

For my part I found it so interesting because I assumed that this style of robotics competition had gone out of fashion decades ago. As with many competitive events, however, it turns out that new innovations bred ever-more-clever solutions to the mazes and the mouse’s programming. One particularly dramatic moment comes when a team introduces diagonal movement, while another when someone starts solving for fastest traversal time rather than physically shortest path.

 “It turns out solving the maze is not the problem, right? It never was the problem, right?” says MIT Research Engineer David Otten in the video. “It’s actually about navigation, and it’s about going fast.”

A lot of the algorithms and programming you hear about in here are actually common-use stuff in videogames. Search and sort programming like the flood-fill method and various other search algorithms, as well as concepts like graph and tree traversal, are core when it comes to games. This is especially true in genres where the computer’s taking control, like when you give orders to real-time strategy units, and in AI programming for allied and enemy bots. 

The engineering bits, probably not that as much. Unless the physics engine is really good. Or if they start applying some kind of fan-powered hover cushion tech to make your gaming mouse move faster by reducing downforce. Actually wait that sounds awesome, someone should do that.

You can watch the 25-minute documentary video The Fastest Maze-Solving Competition on Earth on Youtube.

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