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Robots serve up fiery cocktails in San Francisco

At Roboexotica on Saturday, guests will be able to watch robots mix and serve some pretty mean alcoholic beverages.

During a Friday night preview of the Roboexotica event in San Francisco, which takes place Saturday, Simone Davalos' cocktail robot 'El Espanol Baracho' applies its special elixir to a Spanish Coffee. Roboexotica, which has been taking place for a decade in Vienna, Austria, and is visiting San Francisco, is an exhibition of robots geared to serve and mix drinks. Daniel Terdiman/CNET

SAN FRANCISCO--Since I was one of the first people to arrive Friday night for a preview of this weekend's cocktail robots exhibition here, I was going to get the first drink.

David Calkins, one of the organizers of the San Francisco version of Roboexotica--an event that has been taking place in Vienna, Austria, for a decade--had set up his robot, Chapek, and, determining it was ready, asked me to tell the machine what I wanted to drink.

This was after, of course, Calkins had finished getting Chapek ready to go.

"Let's see if it turns on and explodes," he said, "which it has in the past."

He flicked a switch and Chapek was ready.

Chapek the Robot Cocktail maker is named after Karel Capek, who came up with the term robot. Chapek, the creation of San Francisco Roboexotica organizer David Calkins, is designed to mix and serve a series of cocktails. Daniel Terdiman/CNET

"Hey," he said, pleased. "It didn't."

Chapek, which is named after Karel Capek, who coined the term "robot," is a small robot with a mischievous face, wiry metal arms, and an attached control box where you tell it what kind of cocktail you want it to mix up and serve you. The choices? Gin and orange juice, a gin martini, a vodka martini, and a screwdriver.

I'm not much of a martini man, and not wanting any gin, I switched the controller over to screwdriver, and pressed the button that would set Chapek in motion.

Sure enough, it came alive and slowly, its arm began to swing in the direction of four bottles that were suspended and awaiting martini glasses. Chapek swung the glass in front of the vodka, paused while some of the liquor poured in, and then continued on toward the O.J.

Finished, it reversed directions and headed back toward the beginning, where my hand was eagerly awaiting my beverage.

But just as it reached that point, the arm sped up, and instead of stopping and serving my drink, Chapek slammed the glass against its body, spilling my screwdriver all over itself and its interior electronics.

Chapek begins to move its arm to get the booze to serve the first drink of Friday evening. It would eventually mix a screwdriver but instead of serving the drink, it slammed the glass against itself, spilling its contents all over--and damaging--its microcontroller. Daniel Terdiman/CNET

"I suppose I should look at the (computer) code," a chagrined Calkins said, before explaining to someone who had just wandered by that, "Chapek is being greedy again. He made the drink and then he stole it."

Indeed, while the spilling of the screwdriver had seemingly fried Chapek's microcontroller, rendering the cocktail robot useless for the moment, Calkins wasn't all that perturbed. It was clearly nothing that he or his colleagues hadn't seen before.

"Chapek, he's an alcoholic," said Simone Davalos, Calkins' co-organizer. "We can't take him anywhere."

For a decade, Roboexotica has been a growing hit in Vienna. Now, it has come to San Francisco, where it will be open to the public on Saturday from 8 p.m. to 2 a.m. at Space, 354 5th St.

This cocktail robot--from a 2004 event--is designed to blend up a fruity drink even as it belches out plumes of fire. David Calkins

On Friday night, there were only a few cocktail robots set up for the invited guests to see. So I was not able to see some of the machines that will be on display on Saturday, such as one that can test your blood alcohol content, or another that I believe is intended to blend a fruity drink while shooting out big fire.

But one that was on hand was Davalos' creation, which she called El Espanol Borracho.

This small robot is a cylinder that, if you weren't paying close attention, you might mistake for a kettle. But it's attached to a small container of high-pressure fuel and has spigots coming out of it that serve up the booze.

Davalos had the robot serving Spanish Coffee, a particularly strong mix of several alcohols, but at first she couldn't get it to do just what it was supposed to.

Clearly, fire was supposed to be involved, because she began to tell a funny story.

"Last year, I did this and set my arm on fire," she said. "And I didn't notice at first because the floor was also on fire."

She tried to get it running properly again, but still, no fire erupted. Instead, we all began to smell a very strong odor of fuel.

"David, unplug me please," Davalos urged Calkins. "Quickly."

By now, the robot had squirted out a full cup of alcohol. And for a moment, a small halo of flame shot out of the side of the robot, illuminating the cup.

Someone asked, "What does it taste like?"

"Probably fuel," Davalos joked.

She tinkered with it a little more and then tried again. And this time, it worked: Huge jets of flame shot out the side of the little robot, blasting the drink.

We all cheered. And then someone noticed that the floor had caught fire a little bit.

Chris Veigl's Mind Reading Martini Maker begins to mix up one of its specialties. Daniel Terdiman/CNET

"Yeah, that happens," Davalos said matter of factly, before stamping out the little flames with her foot.

Over on the other side of the room, Magnus Wurzer, a founder of the Austrian Roboexotica, was setting up Chris Veigl's Mind Reading Martini Maker.

This looked a little bit more like a science experiment than a robot, but Wurzer explained that the key to this robot is software that is "customized for martini mixage."

He explained that the robot measures how many alpha waves on average are being detected by an electroencephalogram (EEG), and that the more alpha waves it finds, the drier the martini it makes.

Back in Vienna, Wurzer said, Roboexotica has grown to include dozens of cocktail robots, as well as others that people bring just because they're cool.

For example, he said, someone had recently brought a robot that was capable of flipping a cigarette into peoples' mouths.

Though it wasn't working Friday night, Chapek is designed to speak a series of corny bartender lines. Calkins' computer has the lines programmed into its code. Daniel Terdiman/CNET

Meanwhile, Calkins was trying to get Chapek up and running again, but he was frustrated by the effects of the robot's drinking problem.

"Orange juice and microcontrollers do not mix," Calkins said, exasperated.

A few minutes later, though, he offered, hopefully, "(the microcontroller) might be drying out."

To which Davalos deadpanned, "Every robot bartender needs to dry out once in a while."

On June 10, Geek Gestalt hits the highways for Road Trip 2008. I'll start in Orlando, Fla., and visit many of the South's most interesting destinations. Stay tuned, and be sure to keep up, both now and during the trip, with what I'm doing on Twitter.