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Last Updated: Friday, 4 April, 2003, 23:16 GMT 00:16 UK
Humanoid robots wow Japanese
By J Mark Lytle
in Yokohama

Humanoid robots, some of which can even walk on two legs, dominate the world's largest robot exhibition, held this weekend in Yokohama, southwest of Tokyo.

Honda's Asimo robot
Honda's Asimo is a TV star
The show brings together more than 90 different types of robot from 38 companies, colleges and other organisations, up from last year's 72 bots.

As usual, Honda's Asimo stole the limelight in a way that would have the other automatons hopping mad.

Honda's droid is something of a TV star thanks to his car endorsements and has received more press coverage than any other robot, bar Sony's Aibo.

While Honda has no plans to place the 120-cm tin man on sale, Asimo can now recognise individual faces and can understand gestures as well as spoken commands.

Meet him once and he never forgets, responding by approaching and calling your name on subsequent meetings.

Pierre Hess, 50, visiting from France for the show was impressed: "I don't know how useful a robot like Asimo is, but I wouldn't mind having one at home for the kids."

At up to 20 million yen (105,000) a year to hire, robotic friends do not come cheap.

Fluid walking

For four years now, Aibo has been the undisputed king of consumer robotics. It costs a more reasonable 69,000 yen (365).

This year, Sony has concentrated on accessories, such as Aibo Painter software that allows your plastic pet to express itself via his built-in camera and a PC link.

Sony's SDR-4X II

Or there is the Aibo Speedboard, a surprisingly appealing combination of surfboard and scooter on which the robot pooch can motor around the room.

Aibo's 58-cm brother, Sony's SDR-4X II, was the most technically impressive of the bipedal robots at the show, displaying fluid walking motion and lifelike gestures.

Sony has yet to announce when it will be commercially available and remains committed to the show, in spite of its huge market lead.

Spokesperson Shinji Obana said, "By exhibiting at Robodex, we are proposing future partnerships between humans and robots and [emphasising] Sony's innovation. It's not related to our position in robot market."

Also at the compact end of the robot line-up, Seiko Epson unveiled another miniature marvel. A dozen prototypes of the latest version of the world's smallest robot, the Bluetooth-controlled 12.5-gram Monsieur II-P, appeared in a specially choreographed robot ballet. The show was spectacular, as seen through a magnifying glass.

Home help

Away from the headliners, university research featured prominently, with most attention devoted to Kanagawa Institute of Technology's Power Assist Suit.

Our short term objective is to let the world see that robots as tools, and not pets or partners, are out there and available now
Shin Furukawa, Tmsuk
Essentially an exo-skeleton, the suit was developed to aid nurses required to lift immobile patients.

Electrical sensors placed on the user's muscles trigger the hydraulics to boost strength by more than 50%.

Natsuko Wada, 68, from Tokyo said: "I can see the benefits of something like this, especially as so many Japanese are getting older, but who can afford robots to help at home? It might just be for the rich."

Chiba University's mine detection robot, Comet-III, struck a daunting pose, looking like a 900-kg, car-sized metallic insect.

It is designed to probe soil electronically as it moves forward, clearing mines buried up to 30cm down at 18,000 square metres per hour.

Dinobot guard

Tmsuk's Banryu
The Banryu looks like a mechnical dinosaur
And very much in the realm of the probable rather than the possible, was Tmsuk's Banryu, a home-protection robot with a passing resemblance to a naked dinosaur. Its name translates roughly as dinosaur in the house.

The company's Shin Furukawa said: "Banryu is the first ever consumer-oriented robotic product with a practical use.

"Our short term objective, aside from developing robots that can be truly useful, is to let the world see that robots as tools, and not pets or partners, are out there and available now."

The imposing 1,980,000-yen (10,425) Banryu spends its days lumbering round your empty home at a slovenly 15 metres per hour, watching out for intruders and sniffing the air for smoke.

If anything untoward pops up, it gets on the phone to the emergency services and beams pictures to your mobile. No word yet on whether it slacks off for a cup of tea or to watch a daytime soap.

In pictures: Robots wow Japanese
28 Mar 02  |  Science/Nature
Sony reveals singing robot
19 Mar 02  |  Science/Nature
Life with a robot dog
11 Sep 01  |  Artificial intelligence
Timeline: Real robots
10 Sep 01  |  Artificial intelligence

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