Journey in Japan Part 43: Robots, Androids, and Mechanical Oddities

Journey in Japan Part 43: Robots, Androids, and Mechanical Oddities

For a lot of people in Japan, October is a time for Hallowe’en festivities, scary costumes, decorations, and excited children. For others, the most anticipated event this month is a time for forward chaining, service robots, degrees of freedom, and excitement somewhat equivalent to that of a child in a Hallowe’en sweet shop. Today is Japan Robot Week, and I can’t wait to discover what it’s all about.

The event takes place every two years at the Tokyo International Exhibition Center, or Tokyo Big Sight. East Halls one to three are full of various different exhibits; a total of 480 companies occupy 926 booths. Here are my highlights of the day:

Kawada Industries, Inc.

As with many of the companies here, the robots they have created focus on helping people with menial tasks. A good example of this is NEXTAGE, a Next Generation Industrial Robot.

NEXTAGE can be easily controlled using a cutting edge global user interface. Featuring image recognition, stereo vision that offers three-dimensional coordination, and hand cameras for good measure, NEXTAGE is highly capable of performing tasks that might prove difficult for the ageing Japanese population. To best demonstrate this robots excellent abilities, employees at Kawada Industries have it making them tea and coffee, all day long.

Kobayashi Laboratory

Muscle Suit is an innovative design from Kobayashi Laboratory. The product itself is a wearable robot back support unit that helps people with lifting difficulties. The device is effectively an exoskeleton that naturally copies the movement of humans.

Two models hit the market soon, one which weighs fifteen kilograms, or the slightly larger model weighing thirty kilograms. Thirty kilograms might sound like a lot of weight to have on your back, however, the man in the demonstration manages to lift heavy boxes filled with bags of rice, without even breaking a sweat.

Tomy Company, Ltd.

I am fortunate enough to catch the Tomy Company unveiling their new toy for children. I get to the DeAgostini booth just before twelve, and there is already quite the crowd. Three large cameras record every second of the action. First there is a demonstration of Robi, the build-it-yourself robot that comes with its own magazine. Buy the magazine every week to get the next part of the robot. Robi does a little dance, says, “Hello,” in Japanese; all the while a mysterious purple cloth is covering up the forthcoming announcement.

After a lengthy discussion and multiple trailers on the various television screens, Robi is set down, and eventually the purple cloth is removed. After a long wait, Robi Jr is finally revealed, and he looks frightened. He doesn’t seem to behave very well at all. I think at first that maybe this robot toy starts off as a baby, and part of the fun is to teach it to grow wiser and more capable of using some of the one-thousand preprogrammed phrases that the creators boast the little robot has.

All that Robi Jr appears capable of doing though, is turning its head from side to side (which when it does, mechanical parts creak loudly), and moving its arms up and down in a marching tantrum. Maybe I am missing the point, and perhaps if I was a child again, I might find the prospect of owning a Robi Jr to be somewhat compelling, however, these emotions no longer stir in me, and I leave the exhibit confused.

Atsugi Monozukuri Brand Project

What do you get if you cross pig organs, sweetfish, and a pile of wires and cardboard?
ATSUMO!

This near life-sized robot with a pig for a face is based on Ayukoro, the mascot of Kanagawa Prefecture; specifically the city of Atsugi. A cross between local delicacies, ayu fish and pig organs, this mechanical mascot takes Ayukoro’s form. ATSUMO can run, speak, shake hands, and do what all other robots seem to be capable of doing, and that is of course dancing. The cardboard looking robot even has its own cardboard Carnival Cutouts.

Project Team Atom

“Grab your dreams!” is the tagline for this next exhibit, the Power Assist Hand. The team behind the project were overly welcoming and spoke superb English. I was very surprised when they invited me over to try out their product, hands on.

The Power Assist Hand is incredible. The glove mimics the finger joints for those who have lost the ability to use their hand, for example, sufferers of hemiparesis resulting from a stroke can find it extremely difficult to use the hand effectively, and this product offers a much needed solution. The glove fits comfortably, and is controlled remotely. With a push of a button, my hand grasps firmly; even when I try to resist, my fingers snap open and closed. The device makes picking thing up and gripping objects as easy as flicking a switch. A recent study suggested that repetitive movement can help to regenerate behavior patterns in the brain; so this device could actually help stroke victims to recover both in the physical sense and in a mental capacity too.

Daiwa House

Daiwa House have rather fittingly named their crawlspace inspection robot after a cat, Moogle. This feline shaped robot is slightly more cunning, fitted with an inspection camera, LED lighting, and various types of sensors. It features a fully operational tail which aids it in the ability to climb up large objects or drive across uneven terrain.

The demonstration of this robot has it climbing up stairs and crawling around, all the while projecting what it is seeing onto a large monitor. As far as remote controlled cat tank torch camera robots go, Moogle is the best.

Aldebaran SoftBank

Most people in Japan are quite familiar with Pepper, a robot from SoftBank that is on television almost every five minutes. Developed by Aldebaran for SoftBank, the next installation comes in the form of NAO. “ASK NAO,” goes the tagline, an acronym meaning Autism Solution for Kids. This creative, friendly, teaching robot has been created as a way to help children learn.

I am told that children with autism seem more attracted to technology. NAO has been designed as a way to bridge the gap between technology and the human social world. Looking slightly more polished than some of the other robots I have seen today, NAO boasts two cameras, an inertial measurement unit, capacitive touch sensors, freedom of movement, four directional microphones, two sonar channels for distance, and is powered by an Intel ATOM 1.6 GHz CPU. Just as I am about to leave, K-pop classic Gangnam Style begins to play, and NAO joins in with a perfectly choreographed dance routine. If you have a spare ¥850000 kicking around, you can buy your own NAO, and using voice commands, you can ask it to kick a ball around, or something.

Okayama University

Tetsushi Kamegawa is here with his team from Okayama University, they are here to demonstrate their ‘As Seen on TV’ rescue robot. The robot crawls along the ground before coiling like a snake.

It has a helical rolling motion, giving it the ability to tackle unusual surfaces. With a camera mounted on the front, this robot is an excellent creation designed to find people trapped in difficult to reach areas during disasters. The snakelike robot can impressively climb up trees, and even crawl, almost unassisted, up a vertical pipe.

Everything Else

Japan Robot Week includes an insane amount of small robots just freely wandering around. There are random robots that wash cars, robots that fight each other, robots that build small metal houses. It is difficult not to get distracted here, there is just far too much to see.

Other than Robot Week, three other exhibitions are taking place in the same halls. The aptly named exhibition ‘Vacuum’ is all about vacuum technology and equipment. Robots that suck are hovering around cleaning up dust. Former Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency astronaut, Naoko Yamazaki is giving a lecture on vacuum. The Pan-Exhibition for Wash and Clean is a showcase on industrial washing, cleaning machinery, and includes an exhibition from the Fine Bubbles Industry Association. Monzukuri Matching Japan is the fourth and final exhibition. This section has booths on additives, manufacturing technology, and surface finishing. In this section the WAS Cutting System impressed, a machine that effortlessly cuts through metal, using jets of water.

If robots aren’t quite your cup of tea (but if they are, I am sure NEXTAGE will make one for you), there are plenty of other technologies here to get your teeth into. Hydraulic devices designed to lift disabled people from toilets, machines that help people in and out of their hospital beds, a giant section on 3D printing techniques, far too many cutting devices, micro surgery devices, medical assistant droids, and much, much more. Too much in fact, that I leave exhausted, a mind full of mechanical oddities.

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From England, Luke is a writer and editor living on the edge of Tokyo. He enjoys finding the strange and wonderful amongst the seemingly mundane moments of everyday life and travel, and writing about them.

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