The world's largest robotics show, the International Robot Exhibition, was held in the Tokyo Big Sight complex from 30 November through 3 December 2005. The event, which has taken place every other year since 1973, this year showcased robots from 152 companies and 40 organizations, featuring more than 800 booths, which displayed everything from manufacturing robots to humanoids.
One recent trend at the show, known as IREX 2005, is the increasing number of robots designed for purposes other than manufacturing, including those built to perform medical, welfare, cleaning, and security jobs. For that reason, the biggest part of the exhibition was dedicated to robots specializing in service functions.
Overall, the exhibition was a fantastic success. I'll introduce you to two of the hits of the show. What were the criteria for my selections? As a roboticist, I am not easily impressed with just a couple of entertaining tricks. I had two main criteria: What is really new in the world of robotics, and what is really functional, ready-to-use, and not just a toy?
Here's my top pick: The Actroid, from Kokoro Co. and Advanced Media, of Tokyo [see photos, "Almost Human" and "Expressive Features"].
Close-up of Actroid robot.
The Actroid was the robot that left visitors breathless. Amazingly lifelike, this office robot has been designed as an android "bearing a striking resemblance to a woman," with a command of four languages. (Its technical rationale is to promote the joint venture's ongoing work to fulfill the objectives of the "System Development Toward Practical Use" guidelines of the NEDO 2004 Next-Generation Robot Commercialization Project.)
The Actroid speaks Chinese, English, Japanese, and Korean. It can interactively converse with visitors on various subjects, including information about the exhibition, in a synthetic but realistic voice. It's amazing appearance is so perfectly analogous to humans that, I believe, most people would not notice the difference between this robot and a human from a distance of 20 to 30 meters. It is capable of controlling its motions expressively within the context of a conversation just as a human being does--with facial expressions, lip movements, and behavior. The face of the Actroid has 42 degrees of freedom. The robot is static, however; it can not move.
My second pick: The PARO, from the Intelligent Systems Research Institute of Japan's National Institute of Advanced Industrial Science and Technology in collaboration with Microjennics Co.
BABY SEAL BOT
The therapeutic robot PARO.
PARO is an eighth-generation mimetic mental-committed robot in the form of a baby harp seal [see photo, "Baby Seal Bot"]. Immediately, upon seeing this robot, you feel emotionally connected to it. When you touch it, you get the feeling you are playing with a real baby seal.
PARO is modeled after the little harp seals found on Madeleine Island in northeastern Canada. It is covered with soft artificial fur to make people feel comfortable, as if they were touching a real animal. A baby harp seal spends most of the day sleeping. However, PARO has a diurnal rhythm of morning, afternoon, and night. For example, PARO is active during the day but gets sleepy at night. PARO has five kinds of sensors: tactile, light, audition, temperature, and posture. So it can perceive people and its environment.
An autonomous robot, PARO can express feelings such as surprise and happiness, voluntarily, by blinking its eyes and moving its head and legs. This behavior can be perceived as if PARO has feelings. Every PARO has a different appearance thanks to the hand-built craftsmanship. They also have individual "personalities," which they develop through a process of interactive behavioral learning with their owners. (The robot's artificial fur is hygienic, with an antibacterial, soil-resistant finish, and hair-loss prevention, so that it can be used for a long time. It also features an electromagnetic shield, so that it won't interfere with a user's pacemaker.)
PARO's main application is in so-called animal therapy, where it can serve in three different capacities: the psychological (relaxation, stress relief), the physiological (improvement of vital signs), and the sociological (improvement of communication capabilities). The robot was tested in nursing homes and hospitals for handicapped children in France, Italy, Japan, Sweden, and the United States. After a few months of use, tests showed that having a PARO robot companion can bring about the same effects as interaction with a real animal.
A Japanese child playing with PARO.
In interacting with a PARO robot, I noticed excellent motor and sensor capabilities. It has a tremendous impact on children, as you might imagine [see photo, "Soothing Touch"]. In this alone, I think the joy I saw in the faces of children playing with a PARO justifies high marks for its developers' 13 years of research.
These two outstanding proof-of-concept robots were just a small part of the IREX 2005 exhibition, hosted by the Japanese Robot Association, which also is the organizer of the International Symposium on Robotics, held concurrently. The two conferences jointly are referred to locally as "Tokyo Robot Week."
About the Author
Aleksandar Lazinica is a researcher at Vienna University of Technology. His areas of expertise include mobile robots in manufacturing systems and reconfiguration of multirobot systems. He has published many papers in international scientific journals and is a member of the IEEE Robotics and Automation Society. He is also an editor in chief of the International Journal of Advanced Robotic Systems: http://www.ars-journal.com/.