Robotic pets making a comeback in Japan with new models and upgrades

Written by: Japan Trends on August 27, 2014 at 5:54 pm | In PRODUCT INNOVATION | No Comments

Robotic pets, also known as robo-pets (not to be confused with the actual Robopet), are making something of a return to the shelves of stores in Japan in a valiant effort to buck the trend of local toy manufacturers’ sales declining as the birth rate falls.

We all remember the days when Paro and AIBO first burst into our lives. Now such robotic and interactive animal toys are pretty standard. But let’s take a look at some of the new entries in the market and also take a trip down memory lane while we’re at it.

Back in the 1980′s Tomy (long before it merged with Takara) launched a successful range of robotic toys called Omnibot. They included such high-tech functions as an integrated cassette player (no sniggering at the back!) and could carry things for you if you were lazy enough. Omnibot’s reign in the hearts of kids and geeky teens was brief but it has made a bit of a comeback, at least in name. Takara Tomy have borrowed the brand for two recent new robo-pets.

The Omnibot Hello! MiP is a two-wheeled robot that can dance for you and even carry your drinks!

omnibot hello mip two-wheel robot

Things have certainly moved on since the original Omnibot. No cassettes in sight here. reThe Hello! MiP can move around by motion sensors responding to your movements — e.g. place your hand in front of it — as well as be controlled by your phone.

They also released the local Japan version of Zoomer, renaming it the Omnibot Hello! Zoomer, an interactive dalmatian that can understand 45 English and Japanese words.

omnibot hello zoomer dog robot

Takara Tomy’s awesome line of motion-activated samurai warrior were also christened the Omnibot Battroborg as a nod to the earlier toys.

In the late 1990′s we saw a more serious and forward-thinking application of home robo-pets with the Paro, the healing seal designed for the elderly and hospital patients who need some therapy from a cute companion.

But for many, the robotic pet will always be the AIBO, the massive hit for Sony (how it must dream of those days now) in the second half of the 1990′s.

It was rivaled by the Poo-chi in the early 2000′s, a collaboration between Hasbro and Sega.

This has also been updated with the Heart Energy Poochi, which Sega hopes will replicate some of the success of the earlier dog. Since our lives now have other devices in them, inter-device communication seems to be the trick the makers are playing now. In the Heart Energy Poochi’s case, it can interact with your Nintendo 3DS. And it goes without saying that he likes being stroked but will respond badly if you pull his tail.

sega toys poochi heart energy robot dog pet

Bandai also got in on the canine act a few years ago with the Smartpet Robot Dog, which lets you slot your iPod or iPhone into the dog’s head to make a face out of the screen. No animals were harmed in the development of this product!

bandai smartpet smart pet iphone ipod dog robot

Another classic in the genre is the Yume Neko Dream Cat by Sega Toys, which has very realistic internal sensors that respond to your touch. It started off as an interactive robotic cat, though it was followed by other animals like chicks, squirrels, puppies and rabbits.

The Yume Neko was given an update by Sega Toys recently as the Yume Neko Dream Cat Celeb, providing all the cute interaction of a feline friend without the hassle or mess. This is particularly important in Japan where many people living in apartments are not allowed by the landlord to own real pets. They turn to cat cafes and robots instead.

yume neko dream cat celeb therapy robot cat pet

Of course, this isn’t just domestic manufacturers. The plush toy Furby is also undergoing a bit of a revival here, with Takara Tomy distributing the new model from Hasbro that responds to English commands and has upgraded eyes.

It forms part of a post-2010 trend for “huggable” plush robotic toys, the most sophisticated of which are aimed at helping infants and older kids sleep. The Hug & Dream Mickey and Minnier were big hits, though they were preceded by Takara Tomy’s pioneering Issho ni Nenne “womb doll”, which helped babies get better sleep cycles.

issho ni nenne minnie mouse baby womb doll

And big surprise, this has also been re-launched fairly recently as three new Disney character and Pooh versions.

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Speecys Motion Figure System MF201 is slim, small and agile robot figure

Written by: William on July 31, 2014 at 9:51 am | In PRODUCT INNOVATION | No Comments

Motion Figure System MF201 is a 25cm-tall slender doll-like robot figure system that its makers claim is a “world-first motion figure system”.

The slim and silent mini robot has been created by Speecys, who have applied for a patent for the “motion figure system”. Speecys’ Tomoaki Kasuga previous spent time at Sony working on the AIBO and we know how successful that turned out to be.

speecys motion figure system mf201 robot japanese mini

The demo video is pretty poor quality but I think you can see the nimbleness of the “karakuri” (automata). It is able to swivel its head and feet with an impressive degree of agility. It even kind of dances…

According to the Speecys specs, it has 20 axes (three in the waist, three in each leg, four in each arm, and three in the head), plus it is able to host voice functions and BLE and wifi connections.

While the head design is rather unpleasantly reminiscent of Pyramid Hill, the main drawback would seem to be the platform or stand the MF201 apparently requires for its motor.

speecys motion figure system mf201 robot japanese mini

Speecys showcased the Motion Figure System MF201 at a recent public event in order to search for commercial partners. If they are able to find the right business deal, they hope to sell it in the ¥50-100,000 ($500-$1,000) range. Obviously it needs to be turned into some sort of “character” before it can function as a toy or entertainment piece for kids or grown-ups.

speecys motion figure system mf201 robot japanese mini

I guess the question now is: will they make a mini AKB48 android version?

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Fan makes Yukirin Android, a robot of AKB48 idol Yuki Kashiwagi

Written by: William on July 22, 2014 at 12:05 am | In LIFESTYLE | 1 Comment

Two things Japan is famous for just came crashing together big time: idols and robots.

AKB48′s fans have become notorious for spending vast amounts of time and money on merchandise and tributes to their favorite idols. But this takes the crown, we think. One particularly skilled and devoted admirer of AKB48 idol Yuki Kashiwagi showed his affection for the young idol by creating a realistic working robot of her!

yukirin robot android akb48 yuki kashiwagi niconico chokaigi

Yukirin Robot may be missing her arms but she makes up for it with her luscious hair and cute long face that mimics the real-life singer she is based on.

yukirin robot android akb48 yuki kashiwagi niconico chokaigi

Let’s compare. This is the “real” Yuki Kashiwagi.

yuki kashiwagi akb48 idol japan cute

And here the robotic tribute.

yukirin robot android akb48 yuki kashiwagi niconico chokaigi

Not bad, huh?

The Yukirin (based on Yuki Kashiwagi’s nickname) android, whose eyes and head can move but who apparently lacks the ability to speak, was on exhibit at Niconico Chokaigi 3, a spin-off conference-style event of the popular streaming site, Niconico (formerly Nico Nico Douga). The event is touring the country at the moment, giving locals at every venue a chance to shine and show off their talents in various tech fields.

yukirin robot android akb48 yuki kashiwagi niconico chokaigi

yukirin robot android akb48 yuki kashiwagi niconico chokaigi

Over the weekend it was held in Suzaka City in Nagano Prefecture. On Saturday, visitors were greeted by the AKB48 starlet in robotic form.

Although Yukirin’s appearance at the recent Nagano edition of the touring “conference” has stirred up interest online, the robot was already seen in public in June at another Niconico Chokaigi event. As reported by Nihongo.com, Yukurin was developed by Takayuki Todo, a post-grade media art student who made the android for his graduation project.

yukirin robot android akb48 yuki kashiwagi niconico chokaigi

Yukirin Robot works using an Xbox Kinect sensor in its (her?) chest to respond to people so the eyes will meet yours… just like you are meeting the real Yuki Kashiwagi at an AKB48 handshaking event. And the materials? Apparently it’s wood. We look forward to the upgrades!

yukirin robot android akb48 yuki kashiwagi niconico chokaigi

It’s not just the Yukirin Robot, though. There were many other examples of the geeky but creative and fun creations that Nagano had to offer.

So there you have it. Japan is officially living in an uncanny valley. Its mobile phone shops are staffed by robots, it expends large amounts of science budgets on making creepy children androids, and now even its idols are robots.

[Images source]

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Tokyo’s Latest Uncanny Valley: Androids take over Miraikan, with Hiroshi Ishiguro robot creations Kodomoroid, Otonaroid and Telenoid

Written by: William on June 12, 2014 at 11:35 am | In CULTURE, LIFESTYLE | No Comments

Which is the human?

kodomoroid android ishiguro hiroshi japanese robot child girl

Hot on the heels of SoftBank’s announcement that it would begin selling humanoid robots and even staffing its stores with them, now comes a new exhibition at Miraikai, Tokyo’s premier science museum, showcasing androids.

The interactive exhibition “Android: What is a human?” starts on June 25th and may scare as much as it intrigues, given how we tend to find overly humanoid robots creepy (the so-called “uncanny valley“).

The exhibition has been supervised by none other than Dr. Hiroshi Ishiguro of Osaka University, a scientist who certainly knows how to make a creepy android, as anyone who has seen pictures of him and his doppelgänger robot Geminoid can testify.

gemenoid 2011 meeting creepy uncanny valley android robot ishiguro hiroshi

Exhibits will include Kodomoroid, a female child (kodomo) android, Otonaroid, a female adult (otona) robot, and three Telenoid androids.

Kodomoroid can be controlled remotely and, though it looks like a child, will take on the role of being an announcer, telling visitors the news and information about the Earth, space and the weather.

kodomoroid otonaroid teleroid android robots japanese hiroshi ishiguro miraikan tokyo uncanny valley creepy

Otonaroid is a female-announcer robot “hired” by the museum as a science guide. It (she?) will start a conversation with you when you come close to it, allowing you to experience what interactive relationships with androids may be like in the future.

Telenoid is already well-known as a robot with a more minimal and ambiguous look. The “teleoperated” android “appears both male and female, both old and young”. What’s more, Ishiguro et al promise that “Telenoid’s soft and pleasant skin texture and small, child-like body size allows one to enjoy hugging and communicating with it easily”. Creepy!

telenoid r1 android huggable uncanny valley hiroshi ishiguro robot japanese

Entry costs ¥620 for adults and a mere ¥210 for kids. The exhibits will become part of Miraikan’s permanent collection.

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Meet Pepper: SoftBank stores to be staffed by humanoid robots

Written by: William on June 5, 2014 at 2:29 pm | In LIFESTYLE | No Comments

Stores of SoftBank, one of Japan’s three main mobile phone providers, will be staffed by robots, announced CEO and Japan’s richest man Masayoshi Son at a press conference today in Tokyo.

softbank pepper robot shop store staff humanoid customer service cute masayoshi son

The robot is the Pepper, a new model developed by French robotics company Aldebaran, who have previously produced robots like the Nao and in which Softbank took a stake in 2012. Foxconn will build the new robotic shop attendants.

Pepper is the “world’s first personal robot with emotions”. It can learn from interactions by using a cloud AI system so that other Pepper robots can benefit from each unit’s experiences with customers and humans.

softbank pepper robot shop store staff humanoid customer service cute masayoshi son

Shown off in the demonstration today, Pepper is a short humanoid robot with a tablet on its chest, no doubt for customers to use to browse information on products and for Pepper to show things to people. While it doesn’t have legs, it does have arms that is can use to wave realistically and greet people. It can even sing and dance. Forget the uncanny valley, this is cute robotics!

softbank pepper robot shop store staff humanoid customer service cute masayoshi son

News sources are placing the new bold development in the context of Japan’s aging population, since robotics has frequently been touted as a solution for a future nursing shortage. Japan’s overall robotics market was worth about 860 billion yen ($8.38 billion) in 2012 and is forecast to more than triple in value to 2.85 trillion yen by 2020, says Reuters. With the announcement of the Pepper, it’s about to get bigger.

softbank pepper robot shop store staff humanoid customer service cute masayoshi son

Pepper will be serving customers in two Tokyo SoftBank branches from tomorrow (June 6th) and will also go on general sale next year, priced at a very modest circa ¥200,000 (around $2,000).

*Update*

There’s now an official video of Pepper!

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Sharp goes moe for Premium Cocorobo with imouto anime character

Written by: Japan Trends on March 26, 2014 at 9:32 am | In PRODUCT INNOVATION | No Comments

When Sharp first released its Cocorobo, the world was pretty impressed. Here was a low-cost robotic vacuum cleaner that could respond to its owner’s commands and be controlled by Android and iPhone devices, not to mention go about cleaning your home on its own accord. While it certainly isn’t a RC mop by any means, it is perhaps the most futuristic way to clean your home that we’ve encountered on a mass level.

Following strong sales, Sharp came up with a new version, the Mini Cocorobo for people with more compact residences (very common in space-strapped Japan). So what to do next? What are target consumers are there?

Of course, otaku!

premium cocorobo cleaner vacuum robot moe anime character

Sharp has develoepd the “Premium Cocorobo”, which is decorated with a cute moe girl character and features a imouto younger sister-like voice. What more could you want? Okay, so this isn’t going to be everyone’s tastes, but we still find it pretty cool that Sharp is doing this.

The voice is by Ibuki Kido and the illustration by mangaka Kinusa Shimotsuki. And unlike a real anime girl character (or real girlfriend), this one won’t get all tsundere on you and refuse to do the housework!

premium cocorobo cleaner vacuum robot moe anime character

Before you get too excited, though, the current Premium Cocorobo is just a trial. They are testing the new features of the vacuum cleaner by recruiting people to sample it in their homes for a month. We imagine competition will be fierce for places.

Fingers crossed Sharp will make this into a full commercial product to add to the Cocorobo robotic cleaners already on the market.

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Shinjuku Kabukicho Robot Restaurant: Photo Report & Video!

Written by: William on May 6, 2013 at 12:14 pm | In CULTURE, LIFESTYLE | No Comments

If Kabukicho had a theme park starring Akihabara chika aidoru (“underground” idols), this might be it…

After opening last summer amidst much sound and fury, we finally paid a visit to the Robot Restaurant in Shinjuku’s Kabukicho district.

shinjuku kabukicho robot restaurant tokyo

It is located in the heart of Shinjuku’s world of the erotica. The entrance is a garish, bright open plaza manned by cold beefy bouncers who are if not quite rude, certainly very unwelcoming and unhelpful (don’t expect any kind of guidance). In other words, just like a sex club or strip club.

Anyway, then you go over to the main building on the other side of the street to a horrifically bright waiting room. Seriously, it’s so bright that your eyes hurt. There you are surrounded mirrors and flashing lights, and constant sound.

shinjuku kabukicho robot restaurant tokyo

After waiting for the audience to leave from the previous show, you then go down the stairs to the basement performance area where you are given a bento lunchbox and asked to take a seat on one of the two audience areas. It is a kind of traverse stage, with the “show” happening in the hallway between the two blocks of seats.

shinjuku kabukicho robot restaurant tokyo

This means you spend as much time watching the giant walls of screens showing cheap CGI battles and images of female warriors on horseback, and, naturally, the faces of the other audience members.

shinjuku kabukicho robot restaurant tokyo

We were expecting an audience of sleazy guys or otakus, but actually it was mostly just curious Japanese and foreigners. Considering that the club has advertised itself on its mammoth budget (10 billion yen or $130 million!), the handful of empty seats are not a good sign, though. (Saying that, we can’t really see where the money went but anyway…)

shinjuku kabukicho robot restaurant tokyo

Now to the show itself. Words fail me. It features essentially about 20 dancers who play instruments and, well, dance. Stylistically it’s the biggest smorgasbord of kitsch and the burlesque you are likely to see outside of a Takarazuka performance, only with Kabukicho strip culture and Akihabara chika aidoru motifs thrown in for good measure. It is also erotic; all the girls are scantily clad, plus some had busts we hadn’t seen in Japan except in a porn film.

shinjuku kabukicho robot restaurant tokyo

shinjuku kabukicho robot restaurant tokyo

shinjuku kabukicho robot restaurant tokyo

shinjuku kabukicho robot restaurant tokyo

But more than being aroused, we were most of just simply befuddled by the swirling vortext of influences and elements poured into the mix here. A fighting panda. Drumming girls. A dinosaur. A tank. Sci-fi. Robots. Sex. Sexism. Cheesy smiling idol subculture with genuinely alluring sexuality (well, actually, that’s quite common in Japan so we’re at least used to that).

shinjuku kabukicho robot restaurant tokyo

shinjuku kabukicho robot restaurant tokyo

shinjuku kabukicho robot restaurant tokyo

It is around an hour long, though structured as a series of numbers, so there are quite frequent pauses. Considering it now costs ¥5,000 (with a bento lunchbox meal and drink included), it is a little expensive then, though the kitsch is priceless. For the record, I went with a group of gay Americans and they all seemed to have a whale of a time.

shinjuku kabukicho robot restaurant tokyo

shinjuku kabukicho robot restaurant tokyo

The style of the dancing and music was more Gekidan Shinkansen than genuine strip club, and the finale with the carnival float robots (you have to wait quite a while for the robots to appear!) and a neon tank, followed by dancers who hang from the ceiling, is utterly impossible to define.

shinjuku kabukicho robot restaurant tokyo

shinjuku kabukicho robot restaurant tokyo

Here’s the video we made!

jts_may2013

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Japanese calligraphy robot show artificial arts of the brush

Written by: William on October 12, 2012 at 7:19 pm | In PRODUCT INNOVATION | No Comments

The folks at DigInfo have put together this nice report on a Japanese robot that can recreate the detailed brushstrokes of human calligraphy using a Motion Copy System.

While the whole get-up may appear rather crude, the Keio University-developed device can remember and reproduce delicate strokes right down to the force applied to the brush.

The professor behind the project explains:

There’s a motor attached to the brush, so while the person’s moving, the motion and force are recorded as digital data using the motor. What’s more, with this technology, the recorded motion and force can be reproduced anytime, anywhere using the motor.

We’ve succeeded in using the motor to record the movements of a veteran calligrapher, and to actually reproduce them. So, I think we’ve demonstrated that, to record and reproduce human skills, it’s necessary to record not just motions, but also how strongly those motions are made.

japanese calligraphy robot motion capture system

Given that a lot of traditional crafts and techniques in Japan are generational and need to be passed down to new artisans, this kind of robot may be one way to store ancient arts so that they can be re-learnt again in the event that younger disciples are not found to replace aging masters.

However, with something like calligraphy it is not only about method. There are also more ambiguous emotions behind the strokes and the feeling in the way the brush is handled. A machine or robot may be able to record the direction and pressure on the brush, but not the mood of the calligrapher or what was happening in their mind at the time of the creation process.

The results are an impressive “copy” but is it just technique, as opposed to something more instinctive, more, dare I say it, artistic?

japanese calligraphy robot motion capture system

Talking of putting the “artifice” back into “art”, this reminds us of the robot “artist” created by So Kanno and Takahiro Yamaguchi in 2011.

And, while it doesn’t look as visually impressive, it seems that at any rate these people actually got there first with their smaller calligraphy robot.

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Shinjuku Kabukicho Robot Restaurant

Written by: William on September 17, 2012 at 3:45 pm | In LIFESTYLE, PRODUCT INNOVATION | No Comments

What happens when the eroticism of Kabukicho meets the tech boffins of robotics industry and the cosplay and otaku cultures of Harajuku and Akihabara?

You get the Robot Restaurant, built at a reputed cost of 10 billion yen ($130 million).

We’ve had Gundam Cafe, the Evangelion Karaoke Room, a Evangelion Lawson convenience store… heck there was even a model railway hotel room. And now we have this. But how to describe it?

robot restaurant kabukicho shinjuku tokyo

Kind of like the leftovers from an unfinished Mad Max sequel, these scantily clad ladies ride around on large “robots” for pseudo-idol performances, only without much singing or dancing.

Following its opening over the summer, the Robot Restaurant has proved so popular that the charge has now increased to a whopping ¥4,000 yen ($50). Each “show” lasts around one hour and is held three to four times a day. Heck, it’s cheaper than Vegas, maybe?

We do like the nod to traditional Japanese theatre (namely Bunraku puppet theatre) with the stagehands dressed in black (kurogo), since officially they are “not there” as they arrange the set. Actually the whole affair has an air of Kabuki (appropriately for its location) or Gekidan Shinkansen — high octane, utterly superficial and silly, and yet kind of entertaining as well.

robot restaurant kabukicho shinjuku tokyo

There is also an interesting list of types of customers who will be turned away at the door. It includes host and hostesses (or other people working in mizushobai industry — a large amount of whom ply their trade in Kabukicho), as well as cosplayers and otherwise “unusually” dressed people, and even “pushy” personalities (presumably to protect the performers). (Plus you cannot watch the show wearing sunglasses.)

This is intriguing since the concept of the restaurant is definitely Akihabara and Harajuku subcultures, mixed with the naughtiness of Kabikicho — and yet all the genuine minions of these domains might not be allowed in to see the results!

We haven’t been ourselves yet and we wonder how longer this place will be around… but we’re tempted.

[Images source]

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