Me, Myself, and Iris


To make this robot you will need a computer, various electronic components, and, oh yes, lots of determination.

Lyle Chamberlain, 17, of Oak City, Utah, has a special friend. Her name is Iris. She’s a little on the short and stocky side, but her brain works just like a computer. She likes to run around, but she gets into trouble if there are stairs.

Iris is Lyle’s robot, something Lyle has been working toward nearly all his life.

Lyle has always wanted to build a robot. When he was a five-year-old, in kindergarten, he saw a television show about prosthetics—artificial limbs. From that moment on, Lyle wanted to build something that would move and think on its own. He tried putting a tape recorder in a cardboard box. But it wasn’t good enough. It wasn’t really a robot.

In second grade, when Lyle was playing at his friend’s house, he was introduced to an Atari computer and computer games. “When I told my dad how neat it was and that we should get games like that for our computer, he told me, jokingly, ‘People make those games. Why don’t you make your own?’”

Lyle remembers, even at age seven, being impressed. “It hadn’t occurred to me. Grandpa had given us an old computer, and there were these college programming books with it. I pulled all those out and started looking through them and started typing in program listings. I was amazed. The computer was doing what I told it to do.”

At that young age, Lyle started teaching himself to program. Shortly after, Lyle wrote a program for a game called Maze Craze. “It has a stick man running through a maze. The stick man painted everywhere he had been. You couldn’t get back because it was poison paint, and the walls would shock you if you touched them. If you stayed in one place too long, you died. It was way too hard. I couldn’t play it.”

Little by little Lyle was finding ways to teach himself the things he needed to learn. He struggled to glean information from books that were way above his level. His dad would bring books home for him. And he would try to imitate things he saw others had done. “I didn’t know you have to go through college and work for years and years. I think being naive helped me because I was looking at it as if these men were playing around too.”

His mother and dad, Lisa and Chuck, couldn’t help a great deal. They freely admit to being computer illiterate. Plus taking care of Lyle and his two sisters and four brothers occupied all their time.

Lisa says, “When Lyle would try to explain something he was working on, all I could say was, ‘That’s nice, dear.’” But, over the years, she helped Lyle overcome obstacles like finding ways to enter the regional science fair when his school didn’t hold a local fair.

Lyle still wanted a robot. “My parents wouldn’t buy me one. They wouldn’t buy one of those toys. I would have all these ideas, and Dad would say, ‘Write the plans down first.’” And he found ways for Lyle to earn money while they were building their house. “I dug fence post holes, hodded brick, planted trees, did stuff like that. Dad said, ‘I’ve got to hire somebody; I might as well hire you.’”

Then, while on a river running trip with his Scout troop, Lyle walked into a convenience store late at night and saw a magazine on the rack that had the headline “Build Your Own Robot.” “I bought it and read it all the way through while everyone slept. There were things I didn’t understand at all, but that was okay. That article was my main source of information.” Looking back, Lyle comments, “Pitiful, wasn’t it?”

Lyle started building robots. At first, nothing seemed to work right because, as he later found out, he didn’t know enough. Then he needed to learn how to build things carefully. Finally, he built a robot that worked. His goal was now to make it to the international science fair. But he lost. He took third in the state competition.

“I was extremely disappointed. I stood back and said, ‘Why, what happened? There’s a reason I only took third. There is a reason that this other project beat mine.’ I looked at it for a while. I decided I could keep better records. I could have a better paper. There should be no doubt in the judges’ minds that I built this. I needed to know everything about it. I’ve got to have a better presentation.” By the time Lyle finished analyzing why he lost, he was ready to go to work again.

Lyle’s next robot took him to the international science fair. Again, he was blown away by the competition. But that was okay. Here were people like him. They didn’t sit and waste time. They would get ideas and say, Let’s do it. He came to see what it would take to win the next year.

The next year, Iris was born. Lyle said, “I thought of a lot of things, but other people had tried them and they didn’t work. I was in over my head. But I’m always in over my head. I found out that there is another way to have a robot ‘see’ other than using big, huge, complex computers. It was to simplify things. All the robot needs to recognize is one object—the floor. Anything that’s not the floor must be an obstacle.”

This time, Lyle knew what he needed to do to succeed. He kept meticulous records. He perfected his presentation. And he made sure Iris was working at her best. He knew his information backward and forward.

While at the international competition in Louisville, Kentucky, disaster struck. Iris’s eye—the digital camera—was damaged in shipping. An hour before his presentation, Lyle had the camera apart, working on it. “As soon as something goes wrong, especially at the science fair, there is no time for sitting back and wondering. You have to do something and do it now. No sense getting angry. It’s a waste of time. When the eye broke, I started diagnosing it. How am I going to fix it? How am I going to change my display? That’s one thing my dad teaches. You can’t be a victim. It’s up to you to make sure things are going right for you. Is your teacher a jerk? It doesn’t matter. It’s up to you to get a grade. You can’t leave it up to somebody else or put the blame on somebody else.”

Lyle goes on, “In my high school, there is no science fair. So I found a teacher to sign the papers. There is no mentor. But there are books. You are never stuck. There’s always something you can try as long as you’re willing to work hard.”

This time Lyle and Iris took some honors. He won the prestigious U.S. Army Gold Medal for Science and Engineering. And he took second prize in the fair’s engineering division.

All those times when Lyle didn’t win, he was disappointed for a while. Then he started figuring out what he needed to do to improve. “When I’d lose, I’d say, ‘Now I know how bad I did,’” explained Lyle. “Now I know what I’ve got to do. What am I going to do different?”

So robots must be the most important things in Lyle’s life? Not even close. “Family for me is the biggest, most important thing in my life. It wasn’t always like that. But it’s my family, specifically my parents and extended family, that keep me centered.”

Lyle says he is not the kind of person who accepts things on faith very easily. “It took me a while to realize that the Spirit of the Lord is a substantial, real thing, not just a belief.”

When Lyle’s younger brother Skyler was being ordained a deacon, Lyle was gathered with his father, uncles, and cousins in a circle to help with the ordination. “I thought, What could be better than to spend eternity with these people? I would do anything for anybody in this circle. The Spirit was very strong. That’s when I started thinking, It’s real, it’s substantial, it’s God’s power, and it’s been here all along. The thing I see happening in the family, the spirit that can be there, is the most important thing to me. I’d drop robots right now if the choice was between them and my family. I’m playing with little toys that pale in comparison to that.”

Now Lyle can build robots. He has reached one of the goals he has had all his life. Of course, he always wants to build another one that’s bigger and better than the last. But robots are not number one. His goals have changed, have expanded, to take in eternal things. He hasn’t got it all figured out yet, but all those years of being in a little over his head have taught him a few things: keep trying, keep working hard, keep praying, and keep learning. The answers are out there. And the most important ones come through music, through the feelings of the heart, and through a still, small voice.

There are worlds to conquer, but Lyle has found that the only one that really matters is the one that starts at home and leads to eternity.

[photos] Photography by Janet Thomas and John Luke

[photos] (Far left) Lyle is good at making do with what he has, like his trusty but dilapidated truck. (Above) Instead of resenting Jon Malasek (at Lyle’s left), who beat him out for first place, Lyle says, “Jon’s a great guy. We’re a lot alike. He’s had to learn a lot of things on his own like I have.”

[photos] “Family, for me, is the biggest, most important thing in my life,” says Lyle, pictured at right with his father, younger brothers, cousins, and uncles. (Below) Lyle’s family is gathered on the porch swing of the home they built together.

[photo] Lyle’s passion for music and some of his talent may have been inherited from his grandmother, Alene Chamberlain (pictured with Lyle), and his grandfather. “Music,” he says, “is a direct communication between two souls.”