ESCONDIDO — When you talk through a 4-foot-3 robot that looks like Dorothy's Tin Man rolling along on a metal barrel, it's easy to say just about anything, Victor Roick has discovered.
"Most people would say that I'm sort of shy," said Roick, 28. "But I use him to flirt. I use him to ask pretty girls if they'd like to go dancing. I use him to joke with people. Things that would sound foolish coming from a human being's lips sound, somehow, just fine when a robot says them.
"People react very differently. Women and children usually find it easier to talk to a robot than men do."
Roick has ample opportunity to watch people's reactions. He puts on shows with two robots--Dexter and Pandora--that he and his grandfather built at his grandparents' Escondido home in 1985.
Since then, he admits, his life has never been quite the same.
On a recent Monday, three days before Christmas, Roick and Dexter were at the Sears store in Escondido's North County Fair to promote "Children's Day."
Roick lurked behind a rack of leather jackets, 10 feet from the robot.
"I try to make it look as if he's doing everything all by himself," he said.
Roick concealed a wireless microphone in his left hand. His right hand rested casually in the depths of a black fabric shoulder bag. Dexter is radio-controlled. The control stick that sends him whizzing around on his sturdy wheels, or bursting into music and rocking from side to side, or waving his arms, or tipping his hat, is hidden inside the shoulder bag.
The store was full of frenetic hum and clatter. Bright lemon-colored balloons on red tinsel streamers bobbled upward from the hands of most of the children.
"Are you the one that does windows and vacuums?" a woman passing stopped to ask Dexter.
Dexter made it plain to her--very politely--that he certainly wasn't.
"Would you like to dance?" Dexter asked 8-year-old Breanne Gregory. Disco music rocketed from his built-in stereo system. A crowd was starting to gather. Breanne clasped his hook-like hands. Her cheeks were flushed. Her knee-high scarlet socks were sliding down into her sandals. From the fringes of the crowd, her parents watched, smiling.
Dexter's car mirror reflector eyes swiveled to the left. "Would you like to take me home with you?" he asked two dignified-looking elderly women. Both of them dissolved into giggles.
"I enjoy seeing people enjoying themselves," Roick said. "It's one of the best things about taking a robot around in public."
However, it can be somewhat draining. "I usually say that I have to stop every 2 1/2 hours because Dexter's batteries run down." In reality, Dexter, who runs on 12-volt batteries, can perform smoothly for at least an hour longer than that. "But I can't," Roick said.
Often, he said, children will fling their arms around his robot. Some of them attempt to dismantle him. Some like to kiss him. "By the time we get home his body's usually covered in fingerprints," Roick said, "and I have to give him a good going-over with window cleaner."
Roick, who is single, lives in a trailer park on his grandparents' property in downtown Escondido. A student of electronics, he says his goal is to either work at Disneyland or "do special effects for movies or TV."
When he graduated from San Pasqual High School, he had no idea what sort of a career he wanted, "like about 50% of people, I guess," Roick said. He went through Palomar Community College and then to UC San Diego.
"Taking chemistry, and biology, and physics and drama, while I waited for an idea about the right career to strike me," he said. "It didn't. So finally I took a job in a bank."
Then, early in 1983, he noticed an advertisement in a "Help Wanted" column. A man named Greg Evans needed someone to assist him when he was out in public with his entertainment robot.
"His robot was only 3 feet tall. But it fascinated me," Roick remembers. "As soon as he let me work the controls, I was hooked. I wanted one of my own."
He couldn't afford to buy an entertainment robot--"If they do anything at all except just stand there they cost between $5,000 and $18,000,"--but why not make one?
Roick's grandfather, Newell Martin, who was born in downtown Escondido, designed and developed vending machines and equipment for the food service industry before he retired. Martin still does consulting. His large workshop is filled with metal-working tools.
"When Victor first suggested that we try building one together, I thought it was a pretty good idea. But kind of an unknown result," Martin said.
"My grandfather had the mechanical knowledge, but he didn't know electronics. And, at that time, I hadn't had a single electronics class," Roick said. "We talked about it for almost two years. Then one day we looked at each other and said 'OK--let's do it. If it works, it works.' "
Seven months later, they had Dexter.
"But there were," Martin said with feeling, "some challenges."