An unbridled creative collective called the Stupid Fun Club, occupies a 3,800-square-foot warehouse along the Amtrak train tracks in Berkeley. The club is funded entirely by Wright and has two full-time employees: Filmmaker Michael Winter and conceptual design consultant Marc Thorpe (both he met at the RobotWars TV show). The 4 year-old stupid Fun Club also has a small army of part-timers. It falls somewhere between a think tank and an incubator for wildly innovative TV ideas. The concepts are eccentric, genre-busting - and all focused on Wright's first love: robots.
He has signed a first-look development deal with Fox Broadcasting Co. "It could be a sitcom or something completely different," said Mike Darnell, Fox executive VP for alternative programming and specials. It's about creating new entertainment franchises."
Their first TV pilot was called "M.Y. Robot. It's kind of an artificial intelligence tale set in feudal Japan, filled with puppets, kind of a la Nightmare Before Christmas. It's about this robot that was invented by this blacksmith. The puppets themselves are about eight inches tall. "We've actually built this entire Japanese village at that scale. And that's our set. It's kind of miniatures but it's supposed to be full scale. And the robot is, roughly, a little bigger than a person. But it's all about the way people relate to this machine, the way they project themselves into it."
In postproduction, anime-style graphics were overlaid onto the footage to communicate with viewers in a secret script. Wright explains that he was appropriating Japanese visual styles in the same way the Japanese shows reinterpret American cultural mores. "As far as we know, nobody has done this," he says.
"It's kind of just more for us to learn techniques and all that. It's not like I really want to go do the Hollywood thing."
The other project of the Stupid Fun Club is a reality-based show in which people would be filmed reacting to a life-size, remote-controlled robot. They walk down University Avenue, sending their 250-pound "Reality Robot" into cafes, art stores and shopping centers. "We really want to know when people encounter robots, what do they do." The robot is, frankly, deranged. Equipped with a microphone, speakers and artificial-intelligence software it's just babbling things like "I feel your pain" and "I like to drink beer."
In one experiment, they built a robot that looked like it had been knocked over by a car and then put it on the footpath, where it would plead for help from passersby. "Almost all the women got really creeped out by it and would walk away really fast. The men would ignore the talking and start stripping it for parts!" he explains. "The only people to help it were the mixed gender couples. They would come over, pick it up, converse with it and try to reset it. And we're filming all that."
Here's a movie from a Fox newsitem about Robots. The last part is about the Stupid Fun Club: Fox News
"When we filmed Sad Robot, we also filmed a scene in a restaurant with a robot waiter. It was interesting how many people totally bought it. Usually within three or four minutes, they were completely normal about it. People kind of expect that there will be robots in the future; it's just a matter of when."
"Although there will be comedy, this show will use the robot as a tool to explore human psychology," Wright said. "Robot technology and artificial intelligence are progressing rapidly. Robots will be as common as ATMs and CD-ROMS. This show fast-forwards 20 years to take a look at how humans and robots will live and work together."
"For me the interesting problems in robotics are more software problems. Robots for me are models of various physical and mental human abilities. I love the idea of having a smart machine that walks around, but for me, that's not the big attraction. The big attraction is, in trying to build one of those things, you learn a lot about humans. The human mind is by far the most complex thing in the known universe, we understand more about galaxies and stars than we do about the human brain. I think we'll be studying it for a long time."
The real question is whether the voraciously inquisitive Wright can stick with one concept. On a recent afternoon, club members copied a version of the robot's brain onto a laptop, and then set up a conversation between the robot and its downloaded self. The resulting jumble of miscommunication got Wright thinking... and several pages of diagrams later, he had concocted a new project, called Chatbots. The idea is to develop a cheap text-to-speech and voice-synthesis platform, then integrate it into every toy doll, from "Simpsons" figurines to Powerpuff Girls to Muppets. When placed in close proximity, the toys would talk to each other. "I'm thinking of this as 'Toy Story' come to life," Wright says.
That might account for the puzzled looks Wright received on a swing through Hollywood pitching club ideas. "We don't have the luxury of complete experimentation on our network," said Rick Austin, a VP at the Sci-Fi Channel. One exec from a major broadcast network predicts, "Will Wright will have a future in Hollywood. He is going to hit upon that idea that is both distinctive enough and mainstream enough."