The Amazing MicroMouse Contest

How a geeky contest of robotic mice in mazes became an international phenomenon

Editor’s note: In this 50th-anniversary year of IEEE Spectrum, we are using each month’s Spectral Lines column to describe some pivotal moments in the magazine’s history. Here, the Amazing MicroMouse Contest is recalled by the man who conceived it, former Spectrum Editor in Chief Donald Christiansen.

IEEE Spectrum was just entering its teenage years when, 37 years ago in this magazine, I challenged its readers to design and build a maze-solving “micromouse.” It would have its own self-contained logic and memory and would successfully navigate a maze that Spectrum’s own engineer-editors would design. The configuration of the maze would be held secret until race time. Each mouse would be given an opportunity to probe the maze in test runs, learn from its mistakes, and thereby improve its time in the final run.

We called our event the Amazing MicroMouse Maze Contest. Thousands of entrants signed on in that inaugural year of 1977, but at the first time trials only five contestants had entries ready, and only two of the mice got through the maze. As designers and their mice sharpened their skills, however, 15 mice successfully competed in the Spectrum finals [PDF] at the 1979 National Computer Conference.

The finals were covered by CBS, NBC, and ABC television and were reported in the evening newscasts of Walter Cronkite, John Chancellor, and David Brinkley. Press clippings piled up from a broad range of newspapers, from the International Herald Tribune to the Booneville Daily News, of Missouri. One winning mouse was pictured on the front page of The Wall Street Journal.

In just a few years the micromouse challenge had become a worldwide event. In 1980 the first European competition was held in London, followed a year later by one in Paris. Japan announced the first World Micromouse Contest in 1985. I was invited to judge the first Singapore Micromouse Contest in 1987. That same year the IEE (now the Institution of Engineering and Technology, or IET) hosted an international competition in London.

Micromouse mania has continued to spread up to now, when it’s estimated that more than 100 contests are held annually. Many are sponsored by universities and by IEEE Regions. The 28th annual micromouse contest hosted by the Applied Power Electronics Conference and Exposition was held in Fort Worth, Texas, in March, and this year marks the 35th running of the All-Japan Micromouse Robot contest. Other long-running competitions continue in Mumbai and in Birmingham, England.

The standard micromouse maze is 8 feet square and consists of a 16 by 16 matrix. Each micromouse is permitted a number of search runs to determine the shortest path to the goal, located at the center of the maze. Scoring is based on both the fastest run and the total time consumed for all runs. Contestants may not communicate with their mice in any way. Parts for a micromouse include a chassis, wheels, stepper motors and motor drivers, onboard wall sensors, microcontrollers, and batteries.

The first micromice were scratch built and thus not uniform in appearance. Some were so tall they teetered at the turns. Monty Mouse, from Britain, appeared to be an aluminum sandwich on wheels. Charlotte, “The Belle of Philadelphia,” sported long, seductive black eyelashes. Today, micromouse aficionados no longer need build their mice from scratch. Parts, kits, and complete ready-to-program micromice are now commercially available. Maze walls and posts as well as parts for a complete maze can also be purchased. Many online sites provide advice and tutorials on building micromice, plus schedules and rules for particular contests.

Today’s micromice are smaller, lighter, and faster, and they can turn more quickly, evoking frequent comments of “Amazing!” from audiences and affirming Spectrum’s propitious choice of that adjective to describe its introductory mouse and maze competition. Participants commend the contests not only for the fun they accord but because the micromice can be seen as a compact system involving many interdisciplinary design challenges. The Spectrum staffers who helped launch the Amazing MicroMouse contest should take great pride in what one writer has called “an international phenomenon.”

This article originally appeared in print as “The Amazing MicroMouse Roars On.”

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