Hackster Heroes: DJ Sures

DJ Sures is a passionate Canadian roboticist, visionary, and CEO of EZ-Robot.

Hackster Staff
3 years agoRobotics

DJ Sures is a passionate Canadian roboticist, visionary, and CEO of EZ-Robot.

His career began many years ago as a software developer in robotics for the oil and gas industry. Eventually, he found himself in network and computer security, while continuing to work in parallel with robotics and AI research. Over time, some of projects generated attention online… and the rest was history.

We had the chance to go one-on-one with DJ to talk about his earliest years and inspirations, the EZ-Robot platform and community, the future of robotics, and much more. Here’s what he had to say…

How did you get started?

In 2010, I set out to create a prototype consumer add-on for the iRobot Roomba vacuum. I envisioned it looking like an R2D2 cover which would have a camera, an arm and be Wi-Fi-controlled. Attempting to put it all together with microcontrollers, LEDs, sensors, and servos was extremely difficult, and online resources were scarce. Sitting with my grandfather one sunny afternoon at our family’s summer cabin on Lake Superior, I was celebrating after getting a few very primitive functions working (servos and a few LEDs). Being a wise man, he gave me advice, “Spend all your time on your robot and have one, or teach others what you learned and have a million.” So, I packaged up my knowledge, enrolled a team of developers, and started a company that makes building robotics or IoT devices easy… Thus began EZ-Robot in November 2011 :-)

How old were you when your wrote his first line of code? Built your first robot? Got in trouble for hacking something?

My mother would love to answer this question. I might have been planning robot world domination dating back to the womb! Due to limited technology access, I spent my childhood hot-gluing battery powered plastic toys to each other to invent things — like a back scratcher, a Doctor Who K-9 cardboard robot, and a burglar alarm which nearly gave my mother a new hair style if the breaker didn’t trip first!

My father was a senior technician for a rare Canadian computer manufacturer and network provider named NABU Networks, which he wrote most of the code on Apple ][ computers. My first Apple computer was a Christmas gift when I was six years old. It was a blank PCB, a box of IC’s, sockets and an empty case. While other children were spending their Christmas break sledding and throwing snow balls, I was inside soldering sockets and IC’s to a circuit board, literally building my first computer. I still have that computer and it’s functional (on a good day).

For programming, my father had a tactic to motivate me. There were two large boxes of floppy diskettes on a top shelf in his office full of games. I would have access to pick one disk if I wrote a program that demonstrated something new to him (loops, conditions, sorting, and eventually Apple Assembler). I enjoyed programming so much that I stopped caring about the box of games and wrote my own software. I was the first in Canadian Boy Scouts to receive the computer badge. When the leader asked to bring in proof of code for a program I wrote myself, I printed over 1,000 lines of a Basic graphic-text adventure game I created called MUSK… Needless to say, it was a little more than they were asking for!

What can you do with the EZ-Robot humanoid? Which age groups is it for?

The EZ-Robot Humanoid build is named JD, and he’s my favorite Revolution today! Technically, he’s a build and not specifically a robot because he’s built with EZ-Bits. The EZ-Robot product line, which was recently launched, is becoming incredibly popular in education and the DIY Maker community, and is called Revolution. Rather than making a single robot, we created robot parts that clip together, and we named them EZ-Bits.

All EZ-Robots are targeted for ages 12+, with no maximum age limit! Developing the platform was interesting because the original customers of EZ-Robot were R&D laboratories, such as NASA. Using EZ-Robot, laboratories could assemble a working prototype with camera vision recognition, speech, GAIT movements and mobile device control in hours versus months. Following an investment fundraise, the topic regarding limited market size of laboratories and supporting third-party product development did not prove a viable source of revenue. Evaluating product sales, there was a small blip in education customers which we examined further. When EZ-Robot focused on the education market, the product changed with the addition of plastic modular open-source EZ-Bits and robot builds, like JD Humanoid.

The success of EZ-Robot in the education and DIY market is due to the technology originally being developed for laboratory and product development usage — which includes a very powerful and productive development environment (EZ-Builder) that provides advanced vision recognition, cloud storage, and hundreds of configurable robot behavior modules.

How long did it take to develop it? How hard was it to manufacture it?

The development time of EZ-Robot is infinite — the day we stop developing is the day we close shop!

Manufacturing was a tricky endeavor. However, thanks to a room of 3D printers, we were able to prototype plastic components before embarking on the pricy and risky injection mold process. PCB manufacturing and assembly is incredibly easy, which is why you see nearly all DIY and electronic kits shipped in raw PCB form. The challenging part of creating a consumer product with nearly a 100 plastic “bits” was also a lengthy process that involved many parties. 3D printers can print far more complex pieces that are impossible to injection mold, and this caused dozens of redesigns. A third-party CAD contractor was brought in-house for professional mold design experience, which educated our designers on attributes unknown to us, such as wall drafting.

The injection mold design did take nearly 12 months, which gave us time to design boxes and add new features to the platform — including verbal spoken messages such as battery monitor or Wi-Fi mode assist.

While the education side of EZ-Robot is our strongest revenue source, the features and advancements are inspired by our community. The EZ-Robot Community is extremely active and very supportive, as well as patient! I consider all community members friends, and I interact with them using that mentality because at the root is our common passion for robotics. When people experience EZ-Robot and ask, “Wow that’s a lot of features, how did you manage it all without losing your mind?,” I owe my sanity (or what’s left) to the support of our community!

Many of the robots you see in the media are actually powered by EZ-Robot and built by our community. Everything from the Scarlet Johansson robot to home wine butler robots featured in Wired, Make:, and more. It’s amazing to be part of a community that actively invents and finishes projects due to the productivity the EZ-Robot platform provides.

What differentiates EZ-Robot from other robotics kits available today? Versatility, cost, ease-of-use?

The EZ-Robot Revolution platform is unified and complete, and has been compared to what people would expect Apple to make — meaning out of the box you can start using the friendly robot without having previous robot experience. We designed the platform to allow users to dig further into the inner-workings of any component they feel interested in. For the robot industry to evolve into something substantial, robotics must be recognized to have many disciplines, such as software, hardware, physical appearance, vision, speech, GAIT movements, AI, human interaction, physical esthetic colors and shape, etc… EZ-Robot wants users to choose and explore a discipline of robotics which interests them.

Feedback from users would describe the difference of EZ-Robot Revolution to other robot kits as having significantly more advanced robot behaviors and features which are easier to use. Features such as vision object training and recognition, speech recognition, or even mobile app designer. The EZ-Cloud AppStore has over 2,000 robot apps created by community users of all ages! We even open-sourced the hardware so the parts are 3D-printable directly from the software.

Oh, and it’s important to me personally to maintain product quality while keeping price low. All EZ-Robot’s include cameras, streaming audio, Wi-Fi, LiPo batteries and charger, and even the servo motors contain metal gears with ball bearings!

What it come down to is the reliability, completeness, and unification of the product. EZ-Robot Revolution is a hot new robot product that is unlike anything else! Internally, EZ-Robot marketing staff have challenges explaining the difference of EZ-Robot and competitor kits because nothing else comes close to the usability and expandability. There’s a joke around the office that we should start a second company so there’s some competition — but all jokes aside, we hope EZ-Robot Revolution inspires similar products to help kick-start the robot industry. What matters to us and the community is that we’re all working together to create history!

Where do you see EZ-Robot in five years? 10 years?

I love this question — because it’s where I get to dream BIG! Five years ago, when EZ-Robot was starting out, we wanted to have a significant impact on how robots were created, and that dream has quickly become an exciting reality! We will continue to be involved in education to influence and support a new breed of Makers, inventors and educated people prepared for the work-force involving robotics and IoT devices. I believe other robot companies are skipping an important step by creating fragile/unreliable consumer robot products without educating the consumer. It’s like making a Porsche before the Model-T! Once students currently learning EZ-Robot in schools graduate into the work-force, a significant evolution of consumer robot and IoT products will emerge, which EZ-Robot will support.

With EZ-Robot partners such as Intel and Microsoft, the future of robotics may be closer than you think!

When people use EZ-Robot, they quickly discover that robotics is not simply engineering, electronics, and programming. Knowing EZ-Robot is creating new jobs and preparing people for the future is rewarding. In order for robotics to be considered a serious industry, an influence like EZ-Robot is necessary. The future of EZ-Robot is nothing like Terminator — there’s no need for concern!

Biggest challenge you’ve experienced so far?

I have a personal philosophy that your next challenge should be bigger or more impactful than your last. That being said, it’s a never ending mountain of challenges I climb! In most businesses, finding customers or marketing for product sales is usually the largest challenge. Fortunately, EZ-Robot has a whole different set of challenges, which include keeping up with product demand! The good news is product support is maintained by EZ-Robot’s vast and active community because everyone shares the same passion about inventing automation, robotics and IoT devices. No one wants to hear about business challenges, so I’ll tell you a few stories of hardware development struggles.

There are dozens of new add-ons and products being developed by EZ-Robot engineers, which generally take longer than expected — mostly due to having to re-engineer existing third-party components to meet our functional requirements or quality. Take servos, for example, which are widely available, but are generally incredibly low quality and un-certifiable for classroom/mass-consumer safety. EZ-Robot was forced to engineer our own servos with metal gears, ball-bearings, fail-safe electronics and higher voltage tolerance to run directly off 7.4V LiPo batteries. On that note, EZ-Robot even created our own LiPo batteries to control quality expectations. When sourcing screws for the assembly of plastic components, inconsistencies of availability and quality forced us to manufacture our own screws!

All EZ-Robot’s include a vision camera, for tracking and object recognition. We believe vision is an important aspect to robotics, which is overlooked by nearly all other robot kits. The largest challenge for EZ-Robot’s vision camera was Wi-Fi framerate latency. Dozens of third-party cameras and codecs were tested by our engineers to source a suitable camera partner, and the results were disappointing. EZ-Robot ended up having to engineer camera modules specific to satisfy our near-real-time framerate requirement for reliable vision tracking.

I could also spend a great deal of time telling you stories about challenges implementing real-time Wi-Fi communication capabilities to the EZ-B controller — and how we worked with manufacturers to fix products which were not meeting TCP/IP protocol specifications.

Needless to say, the development of the EZ-Robot Revolution platform has been a different challenge every day. Like many other innovative Makers, inventors and companies, these challenges are necessary industry influences which we are passionate about.

Why Intel Edison and Joule?

When designing the EZ-B v4, the Intel Edison was considered but the real-time performance did not meet our requirements and the unit price was too high for mass-production. Intel and Microsoft contacted EZ-Robot in June and we sat down a mere 1.5 months before the IDF16 conference (August) when the Joule was to be unveiled. They asked if we could “do something cool with the Joule.”

The specifications of the Joule were surprising and surpassed expectations! EZ-Robot engineers worked day and night to create the EZ-B v5 POC. Having the potential to run Windows 10 OS inside an EZ-Robot, with HDMI and USB, has a huge impact! When EZ-Robot’s education team was consulted on how the Joule could assist their sales, there was a lot of positive feedback and excitement. EZ-Robots could replace laptops and tablets in the classroom AND add robot functionality, all in one package!

Currently, a classroom needs to buy a PC/tablet and a robot/STEM kit, as two separate purchases, which places the PC/tablet as priority #1 and the robot/STEM kit as priority #2. In more cases than you can imagine, less fortunate schools can even barely afford the PC/tablet. Incorporating the Joule as an optional upgrade to EZ-Robot Revolution means schools will be able to make one single purchase of an EZ-Robot, which includes the functionality of a PC/tablet in the robot via HDMI and USB peripherals — including the ease-of-use and quality of EZ-Robot, performance of Intel Joule and productivity of Microsoft Windows 10.

This will have a significant impact in education and for DIY users!

What is your favorite thing about robotics? The community?

Your question contains the answer! The community is my favorite thing about robotics. I believe every industry began with a group of individuals sharing the same goal. While maybe not all agreed on the same process, those disagreements are challenges which introduce new solutions to problems. Let me describe a scenario…

One day on EZ-Robot’s community, a student joined and asked how he can have the robot stop when the camera sees RED and go when the camera sees GREEN. Well, community users began suggesting scripts and writing code with a variety of approaches. EZ-Robot engineers watched the conversation thread and even though many of the users disagreed with each other’s approach, the EZ-Robot engineers extracted something brilliant from the observation! The users were unknowingly separately describing functions of a single feature. The EZ-Robot engineers created an incredibly innovative and one-of-a-kind interface feature for the EZ-Robot camera, which allows users to define color filters in real-time and assign behaviors to each color. A simple slide control next to the camera preview allows users to specify a HUE range and isolate per color. This feature was inspired entirely by observing conflicting opinions in the community!

That leads me to my select favorite thing about robotics, is that there are no set-in-stone standards, yet. This gives everyone across the world the ability to partake in unique approaches to robotic behaviors, with knowing their involvement will play a role in the future of the robot industry. Something like this that will have a substantial global impact in the future has not been possible since the evolution of the PC in the 1970s by students and hobbyists.

What’s the future of robotics in context of AI, machine learning and advanced mechanics? Is Blade Runner the future?

Uh oh, I’m going to get philosophical here… I bounce between two concerns with the future of technology in general. When I accidentally find myself in front of broadcast television, the popularity of reality TV reminds me of the 2006 movie Idiocracy, and has me worried for our future. However, most of the reality television is geographically limited to the United States, which provides advantages for other countries to step ahead with technology. EZ-Robot products are to schools and Makers in 103 countries, and the top purchasing country today is indeed the United States, however, the close trailing second and third countries may surprise you!

I’m a huge fan of science fiction movies, no matter how cheesy or far-fetched. While there are many reasons Hollywood chooses robots to have a human form in movies, I believe future robot forms will be specific to their respective function. With robotics, there is no reason to create a Swiss Army knife robot, when a new robot can be easily manufactured by other manufacturing robots. Take mowing the lawn, for instance. Growing a human to mow the lawn is very inefficient — you have to execute the birth process, infant care, education, clothing, food, etc. and still end up with a human form-factor which is quite inefficient to be good at anything specific, except perhaps watching Reality Television *grin*. Where a robot can be manufactured in hours to perform the desired function far more efficiently and productively. So, is Blade Runner the future? In a way, yes… but robots will never have a reason to take the shape of humans.

Virtual Reality + Augmented Reality + Robotics: Discuss

Augmented reality has huge impacts for robotics, specifically for navigation and control. When EZ-Robot released the Oculus Rift plug-in, there was great excitement in the classroom and from hobbyists regarding applications for real world scenarios. Such as controlling mining robots on other planets, robots in hazardous environments or robots performing rescue missions, all from the safety and comfort of your office chair.

Even though augmented reality has a larger impact on robotics, I am extremely excited for advancements in virtual reality. While today, virtual reality is limited to video games and the odd nauseating proof of concept demo, it has a significant social impact. Our biggest fear is death, not spiders or belly buttons. And before death comes old age or sickness which limits our mobility and ability to interact with the world, rendering us somewhat useless, and that has a negative impact on moral. Introducing virtual reality to the elderly or disabled allows users to experience a new life, a new body and a new uplifting moral!

Perhaps one day there will be server-farm style buildings filled with elderly/disabled humans in drawers connected to virtual reality worlds where they can live anywhere, be any age, and run as fast as they want. Family members or friends can visit loved ones through their headsets and maintain contact in the virtual world. Additionally, citizens of the virtual world can work odd jobs for spare cash as customer support for companies, consulting, or even legal advice to the citizens of the physical world.

Scenarios like this excite me for the future, by knowing that I may not need to feel the wrath of old age!

You obviously love Doctor Who — which Doctor would you be and why?

Oh, this is the best question that I have ever been asked. Thank you in advance — my answer is Sylvester McCoy (the seventh doctor). At a young age I found his rolling R’s and hankie hat entertaining. The episodes around Sylvester McCoy had more technology than the popular Tom Baker. Sylvester’s personality was the first of the Doctors to have a child-like view of the world. He reacted like everything he saw was brand new, exciting, and inteRrRrRrRresting!

Relatedly, if you could time-travel to the future, which advanced tech would you be most excited about bringing back? What do you think will, or should, be built or improved?

Unlike individuals behind Snapchat or Tinder, I believe most technologists/Makers/inventors/programmers are passionate about making our days safer while we explore life, the universe and everything! Anyone interested in technology should also, by default, be interested in physics, quantum computing and new discoveries of our universe. Whether there is a super-power god-like creator or that we’re completely alone, the universe is here for us to explore. I believe the future of the human race will reach out into the universe.

If I could travel to the future, I would be most interested in discoveries and our control of universal laws, which gives us the ability to travel interstellar distances. And if by chance the universe is more stubborn than we believe and humans are still stuck on earth, I’ll plug-in at the nearest virtual reality café and visit Parzival in the OASIS.

What advice would you give young Makers and roboticists looking to launch their own startup? Best words of wisdom you’ve ever received?

Outside of work, my passion is helping others start their own company. Generally, the questions and my advice is specific to the startup or their current challenges. However, the one bit of advice that I can give anyone starting a company or embarking on a new project is DON’T GIVE UP. That also includes not letting frustration be the consumption of your energy. Energy is neither created or destroyed, so direct energy where it matters to you. Anger and frustration is a great way to waste valuable energy. This may be difficult at first, and that’s why the second bit of advice is to force new behaviors. This means forcing a positive outlook to reprogram daily behaviors. Whether you like it or not, you’re the most advanced robot you have.

Oh, and get used to eating a lot of Kraft Dinner for the first year or so!

What are the hot, growing tech segments up in Alberta?

Oh, that’s an easy one… EZ-Robot! Even though not many Canadians or Albertans know that EZ-Robot’s main HQ is located in Calgary. Alberta is an oil & gas province and is probably the world’s most difficult place for a successful startup. Perhaps Alberta is a good test to validate startups!

Lightning round…

Were you ever an actual DJ?

Once upon an embarrassing time, yes.

Coolest toy you’ve ever hacked?

Star Wars AT-AT Walker! He’s not a pet dog in my house. Creepiest hack was the Bimbo The Clown antique boardwalk amusement game. The most popular was WALL-E.

Describe the EZ-Robot community in one word.

Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious!

Your dream robot. What would it do?

Hold my brain so I never have to die…

First Maker Faire.

Paul Spinrad from Make: Magazine convinced me write an article (volume #27) called “Teaching Old Toys New Tricks” and invited me to my first Maker Faire in San Mateo 2012. I drove down from Calgary in my car filled with robots!

Your go-to board?

www.ez-robot.com/community/forum :-)

Favorite fictional robot?

Everyone’s favorite: Bender, the robot with shiny metal assitude!

Last crowdfunding campaign you backed.

Exploding Kittens! *boom*

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