Entertainment robotexpo opens in Japan

What's being billed as the world's first exposition of human partner robots opened yesterday in Yokohama, just outside of Tokyo.

          What's being billed as the world's first exposition of human partner robots opened yesterday in Yokohama, just outside of Tokyo.

          The show is the brainchild of Toshitada Doi, a corporate executive vice president at Sony Corp. and head of the company's Digital Creatures Laboratory which came up with Aibo. Doi is spearheading Sony's push into the world of robotics -- a sector he believes could become a major entertainment market for the company in the future. But Robodex was much more than a Sony expo.

          While the cute Aibo, both the original and recently launched second-generation versions, won over the hearts of many visitors and especially children, it was two new humanoid robots that wowed many.

          Sony's 50 centimeter-tall prototype SDR (Sony Dream Robot), which was unveiled to the press on Wednesday, was demonstrating its abilities. These include synchronized body movement, in which it moves the upper half of its body to counteract the movement generated by the lower half and so maintains balance, and both voice and color object recognition. The latter two talents were demonstrated when the SDR was instructed by a Sony official to kick one of three colored balls into a goal. [

          The second humanoid robot was the taller 120 centimeter Asimo from Honda Motor Co. Ltd. Part of an ongoing development program, the Asimo is much smaller and lighter than previous prototypes and can walk in a much more natural manner. This latter talent was the main theme of Honda's demonstration which included having the Asimo walk down stairs and in front of a crowd of hundreds of visitors.

          A host of other robots, some more like toys, were also on display including Tanaka's Aquaroid, a kind of robot jellyfish, Bandai 's new WonderBorg, an oversized toy robotic bug, and the Face Robot from the Science University of Tokyo's Department of Mechanical Engineering, which attempted to mimic realistic face movements.

          NTT DoCoMo, Japan's leading cellphone operator, was also trying to get in on the action by demonstrating the Tmsuk 4, although this robot has little association with the carrier and simply uses DoCoMo cellphones for the control link between the operator and robot.

          Developed by Tmsuk Communication Technology, the Tmsuk 4 looks a little like a lady in a ball gown. The robot is commanded via wireless from an impressive looking control console that has two arms which the operator can hold. As the arms on the control panel are manipulated, the robot mimics the movement. A digital video camera mounted on the head of the Tmsuk 4 also relays images to the controller.

          While commercialisation plans don't exist for much of the technology on display, at least in its current form, Doi hopes the exhibition will have at least one lasting legacy. He is proposing the term "Asobot" be adopted to describe robots that are designed to entertain or help people. The word is derived from "association robot" and Doi hopes the word becomes as much a part of our future lives as robots might.

          More information about Robodex, which runs until Sunday in Yokohama, can be found online at http://www.robodex.org/.

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