Fri, Jun 10, 2005 - Page 4 News List

Robots put through their paces at Aichi World Expo


Humanoid robots line up on a stage before the opening ceremony of the Prototype Robot Exhibition at the Aichi World Expo in Nagakute, central Japan, yesterday.


Robots of all shapes and sizes were batting fastballs, drawing portraits, teaching the waltz and doing standup comedy at the World Expo -- but several years of testing are still needed before most of them can be used in public, developers say.

Lined up in a row of booths, the more than 60 robots on display starting Thursday at the Prototype Robot Exhibition -- being held in a corner of the sprawling expo in Aichi, in central Japan -- are designed to become part of everyday lives, helping the sick, rescuing disaster victims and entertaining families.

The exhibit, which runs through June 19, aims to showcase Japan's leadership in robotics. With the nation's economy still sluggish, corporations, researchers and government officials are hoping the sector can provide new growth opportunities.

The Japan Robot Association, a trade group, expects the Japanese market for next-generation robots -- those being developed now as opposed to industrial robots currently in use -- to grow to ?1.5 trillion (US$14 billion) by 2010, and to more than ?4 trillion (US$37 billion) by 2025.

But all the robots on display were test models, and researchers say it will still be several years until they can be used safely and reliably in public. Several robots had obvious glitches.

Cooper, a mechanical portrait artist developed by a candy maker, was drawing the faces of visitors on large cookies with a laser-pen. It has a program that translates images from a digital camera into line drawing instructions, but sometime the robot delivers only a mishmash of scribbles, said Yukata Saito, spokesman for developer Yoshikawa Kikai Seisakusho Corp.

Many of the robots were designed to help communication. One worked as a fancy videophone, replicating the moves of the distant caller with its mechanical arms and projecting a three-dimensional image of the caller on its face.

One model called Batting Robot has a vision system that handles 1,000 images a second, more than 30 times the human eye, allowing it to accurately hit pitches of up to 160kph. At the expo, however, it was using a plastic bat to hit rubber balls at far slower speeds.

Hiroshima University Associate Professor Idaku Ishii believes the robot can help train major league baseball players, although a more practical purpose is processing information at lightning speeds, such as detecting cracks in walls during an earthquake.

The exhibit boasts a lineup galore of entertainment robots.

Humanoids Robovie and Wakamaru have been programmed by a famous comedy agency to put on a slapstick routine.

A model called InterAnimal is a teddy bear about 120cm tall that moves its arms and nods in synch to the sound the human voice. Developers claim it helps children who have problems talking with adults.

The robot that looks most like a human being is the Repliee Q1expo, which is covered with a skin-like substance and moves its mouth and shifts its torso as though it's breathing. It also gives the illusion of reacting to approaching people.

But Repliee sometimes goes into what appears to be spasms when its program hits a glitch.

Still, it may be a precursor of the day when robots will be helping with tasks such as guiding the elderly around the streets or selling tickets, developers say.

"When a robot looks too much like the real thing, it's creepy," Osaka University Professor Hiroshi Ishiguro said. "But if they resemble human beings, it also makes communication easier."

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