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Category: Tech

Going Japanese: Trends in Consumerism

Japanese shopping street

Japanese shopping street

What comes to mind when you think of Japan? Probably a diverse mix of images: traditional Geishas, cherry blossom and tea ceremonies alongside humanoid robots, Anime and Manga, ultra-trendy urbanites, high-speed trains and high-tech consumerism, obviously.

No? Just the Tsunami? Time to look more closely.

History is an interesting phenomena, especially when you use it to track and predict future trends, whether financial, economic or cultural. One of the long established patterns in global history is that of the culture and developments of one part of human culture leading the other. One of these is the pattern of west leading east for 900 years and then it changing over so east leads west. At the moment the balance has just shifted and east is beginning to lead west.

So whatever is the latest must-have in Japan now, you can expect to find it, or a Europeanised variant, in a shop near you soon. And this isn’t just about the products, it’s also true of retail experiences and technology trends. Consequently a quick glance at Japan today could well offer us a window into our own future, so let’s take a peek…

Addicted to mobile

The mobile phone has become ubiquitous across the western world and we are all familiar with the incessant arrival of new functions and features: picture messaging, 3G, mobile Internet and mobile gaming, to name a few. But are you aware that these new advances typically start in Japan, where the youth are very responsive to mobile advances, enabling the operators to test and embed them here first.

Taking pictures of cherry blossom on mobile phones in JapanFor example, picture messaging became a standard part of life for Japanese teenagers back in 2003, well in advance of it taking off in Europe, and they continue to be one step ahead of us in terms of mobile phone design and function. And sticking with texting for a moment, the range of icons are mind blowing and many have crossed into general text language usage.

For example, the symbol for the astrological sign, Aquarius, which is two wavy lines one above the other, has become the symbol for ‘sea’. It’s a whole new world, especially when you consider that while we were getting excited about the 3G network a couple of years ago, Japan was already moving towards 4G.

Basically, in Japan, the mobile phone hasn’t been just a phone with address book and camera attached for years – it’s pretty much everything in one handy packet, from your TV to using it as debit or credit card to go shopping with, right through to playing Final Fantasy or Dragon Quest.

Japanese mobiles make the iPhone look like something from the 20th century – in Japan you can use your phone as a train season ticket or plane ticket, pay on the internet with e-money or operate a vending machine. And in Japan, a vending machine is not just for crisps, chocolate and cans, but for products as diverse as eggs, umbrellas, fishing line and bait, toilet paper, kid’s toys, fresh noodles or flowers, fresh fried food, newspapers, flight insurance, alcohol of all types, porn, condoms and energy drinks, batteries, ice cream, and dry ice.

Egg vending machine in Japan

Egg vending machine

Japanese phones scan your fingerprints for automatic recognition, offer hard disc drives, pedometers, and read-aloud systems. In Japan you use your phone as standard to scan the barcode of any item in a retail store to find it on the Amazon site for less and order it instantly, use it to pay your bills, and even read mobile-phone books.

How are you reading today?

Teenagers in Japan are hooked on mobile-phone novels, with books being written specially for the small screen and sent in 1,600 character instalments. Sort of like Kindle, though not, Japanese cell phone novels phenomenon, known as keitai, has spawned its own mini genre and a clutch of keitai authors, of whom one, a 15-year-old from Tokyo who writes under the nom de plume Bunny, has sold over 110,000 paperback copies of her three-volume novel ‘Wolf Boy x Natural Girl’, which was originally typed 1,000 characters at a time on the tiny cellular screen of her mobile phone. ‘Wolf Boy x Natural Girl’ has so far grossed over $116,000.

Robots and Gadgets

Robotic Coca Cola vending machine in Tokyo

Robotic Coca Cola vending machine in Tokyo

Futuristic electronic gadgets are synonymous with Japan and they continue to set the pace for the rest of the world, with no shortage of new robotic ideas coming through, including robotic vending machines.

Already popular are the talking translators, which go one step further than electronic translators to speak out the text for you. And a new addition to the Japanese iPod community is the ‘Miuro’, an iPod docking station that twists and rolls to iPod tunes and can also be programmed to roll into your bedroom and blast out tunes as your wakeup call.

The HRP-3 Promet Mk-II from Kawada Industries is very similar to Honda’s Asimo, both in appearance and in its ability to carry out a wide range of domestic tasks although far less cute and more scary-looking. However, its $3million price tag means it is probably reserved for the seriously rich gadget addict.

A mere $7,000 will buy you a Nuvo, which is aimed at the same niche as the ifBot and is billed by its manufacturer as ‘the humanoid robot for everyone’, and given Japan’s determination to create a new robotic world, we’re pretty sure that one day they really will become mainstream.

And with web 2.0 transforming our lives, robotic gadgets are also coming online to make our internet experience easier and more enjoyable, such as PaPeRo. This colourful little parrot-inspired robot sits on your desk and dictates everything you say before transforming it into internet content, a totally cute and original way of creating a truly dynamic virtual blog.
And then there is Lovotics, which builds n tehe advances with the cute and cuddly ‘gadgets’ to make love robots:

And have you seen the internet umbrella, Pileus?

Enjoy the rain

Pileus - internet umbrella

Pileus - internet umbrella

Developed by two students, the Pileus is not your everyday umbrella. It has a large screen on the top surface, a built-in camera, a motion sensor, GPS, and a digital compass, and it provides two main functions: social photo-sharing and a 3D map navigation.

The photo function is connected to Flickr.com, and enables the user to take photo with a camera on the umbrella, and upload the pictures to Flickr via a wifi connection. You can also watch photo-streams downloaded from Flickr, and video-stream from YouTube… so while boredom may not be a problem, walking in front of a bus might be. However, even if you do walk in front of a bus, at least you won’t be lost because the inbuilt 3D map navigation is powered by Google Earth. Detecting a location data from GPS, your umbrella will show you a 3D bird’s eye view of your surroundings so you can walk through a city comparing the 3D views and real sights, while navigating using your digital compass.

Ring ring baby

And another truly odd gadget is the ‘Ubi-Wa’. Its name has two meanings in Japanese: “finger ring” or “speak by finger”, and this is precisely what it allows you to do because, yep, it’s a ring that is a phone. Cleverly, the ‘Ubi-Wa’ converts vibrations, which travel down your hand and arm bones into your ear canal, into speech you can understand. It may be a bizarre gadget now, but given the rise and rise of girl power in Japan, it can only be a short amount of time before it becomes one of the must-have accessories.

Girl-power, Japanese style

In fact, girl-power is having a big impact in Japan, in particular schoolgirls and teenagers, who are the true arbiters of cool, and the Arasa, who are the 30-something single girls with spending power.

There are even shopping malls, such as Yurakucho Marui and Marronnier Gate in Tokyo, targeted exclusively at Arasa, and there is a rapid rise in brands directly appealing to this affluent market because they are all about fashion and luxury, which equals a lot more spending.

One retail experience in particular is focused on women – cosmetic sampling salons. Whether online or on the high street, Japanese women now have the opportunity to try before they buy. There are online clubs where women can sign-up to receive regular free samples in return for feedback; exclusive membership-only salons where members can test a wide range of products in luxurious surroundings; and high street testing shops without onsite sales counters or sales assistants, which just goes to prove what a technology-savvy generation this is.

The whole retail experience is, in fact, increasingly virtual. Japanese women have been quick to embrace mobile phone shopping enthusiastically, purchasing products ranging from CDs and DVDs to clothing and shoes from specially-targeted mobile browsing internet stores.

Anime and Manga

And it’s not just girl power in Japan, Okatu are also having an impact on retail trends. These are geeks who are devoted to the grown-up Japanese animated films and comic strips (think Hiro in ‘Heroes’). Many of them are hitting the silver-surfer zone and bringing some serious spending power with them. While many of the younger ones, who still live at home with their parents and so also have a lot of disposable income, are also joining the craze, with the biggest phenomenon at the moment being moe, which is basically an obsession with a particular type or character. Retailers are pandering to the moe as the consumers are willing to spend big bucks on their obsession. While alongside the inevitable rise of memorabilia is the growth of ‘maid-cafés’, where the waitresses are dressed in Anime- or Manga-inspired uniforms. While you may think this is a uniquely Japanese phenomenon, experts are predicting that as Anime and Manga increase in popularity globally, so too moe will eventually go global too.

LOHAS: Going green

And just as here, so too in Japan, where ‘green’ is having an impact on retail habits and has even become fashionable. In fact, it’s so popular that the term LOHAS had entered common vernacular. Originally coined in the US, as an acronym for Lifestyles Of Health And Sustainability, today in Japan LOHAS identifies anything that has an environmental or health benefit.

The Japanese car manufacturers are well known for leading the way, not least with the global fame of the Toyota Prius hybrid car. But what is probably less well known is their work on green materials for body shells, with a prototype car shown at the Aichi World Exposition in 2008, which has a body made out of kenaf, a plant-based material, also known as or Hibiscus Cannabinus. Toyota has been researching the use of kenaf in automotive applications for almost a decade now and currently kenaf is being used for components in a total of 27 car models, mainly high-end cars. While it may be a long way from total mass production, it’s a neat twist on eco-friendly car development.

While in the EU the green trend is to reduce, reuse, recycle, it should come as no surprise that in Japan, which is widely considered the ultimate consumer society, the general approach is consumerism with a bit of ecological conscience. Add to that their high-density living in big urban areas, which has led to a wealth of creativity when it comes to utilising small spaces and being economical with energy and natural sources, and you get some impressive solutions. For example, a current Japanese trend is for ‘Green Curtains’: growing plants on nets strung across the outside of buildings to provide natural air conditioning.

This has a double benefit: it increases the amount of plant-life in the urban area and also reduces the air-conditioning bill – saving both Yen and energy. Continuing the eco theme, there are vending machines where you can put your empty cans back in and get paid to do so, while Sanyo have brought out a washing machine that works without water. And then there’s the tankless toilet…

Flushing for Japan

In fact, toilets of all kinds are a Japanese obsession, probably because of their national focus on clean versus unclean and the conviction that clean is beautiful (one word can mean both). And they come in all types and size, although mostly small, owing to the compact apartments that most Japanese urban dwellers call home. As a solution to this there’s a popular model that enables you to wash your hands in the water that will be used for the next flush (totally hygienic, it simply fills into a basin in the top of the tank; it’s just cold) and then there’s the washlet, which is a near obsession in Japan, with more people owing one than a computer…er…what’s a washlet?

The king of toilets, the washlet is a bidet (two jets, one for women only, the other for everyone) in a toilet and much, much more… it also warms the seat for you (based on historical usage i.e. it monitors when you mostly go to the toilet and warms the seat at these times…), lifts the seat when you approach (one or both seats, depending on whether you are facing towards it or away from it), offers you music or sound effects while you perform your business (don’t forget how thin the walls are in Japanese apartments), self cleans, shuts the lids down again after flushing, and even monitors your pee and sends the data to your doctor for analysis…they really have thought of everything!

Into the West

So what do you think will make the leap from east to west? I’m not sure if it gets hot enough anywhere in the UK for ‘Green Curtains’ to take off, and I’m not sold on the tankless toilet either and think the washlet is more likely to make me feel nervous than reassured and pampered, but I reckon the mobile phone advances are a given, the water-free washing machine is a winner and I was totally wowed by the internet brolly. And I’m sure there’s much more still to come…

Love the future, love Japan.

© Claire Burdett 2008, updated 2011. First published in What’s the Future (WTF) Magazine.


Flying into the Future

These are exciting times in the aviation industry. From larger capacity airliners to increasingly sophisticated interior fixtures and fittings and bespoke flights, aviation is finally growing into its potential, the potential that has been there since the Wright brothers first took to the skies in what amounted to an airborne sailing craft concocted from wooden struts and sail cloth. The standard carriers of the mid 20th century, which were basically sardine cans crammed full of seats and little else hold as much similarity to the Wright brothers’ plane as they do to the planes coming into service at the beginning of the 21st century.

Already a lot of airlines offer an experience that is as luxurious as many hotels, with flat beds in their own space, a bar where you can sit and enjoy a drink, on-flight chefs who will prepare food as and when you require it, and in-seat in-flight entertainment, whether that’s a socket for your i-pod or a personal television screen on which to watch the movie of your choice. Admittedly many of these are still only available to first class passengers, but it can only be a matter of time before tailored facilities become available on board for all passengers, whether they chose to work, sleep or play, and interestingly, that future came a step closer this month with the first Airbus A380 delivery from EADS to Singapore Airlines. This is where the goals and dreams of decades come together because the Airbus has, quite simply, been years in the planning and its spec reads like something out of a futuristic sci fi movie.

So what’s so new about it? It’s just a plane, isn’t it? Well, yes, but WHAT a plane. The most obvious fact about the Airbus A380 is that it truly is the mammoth of the skies. Its spacious cabin offers room for not just the 600-800 passengers, but also such installations as relaxation areas, duty-free shopping, and beauty salons, not to mention the recent ideas mooted by Virgin Atlantic for its A380, due for delivery next year, which included casinos, double beds, a gymnasium, and showers. However, the really special stuff is the behind the scenes advances and improvements that make the new generation aircrafts, such as the Airbus A380, technological dreams because the kind of space we are talking about is by no means accidental.

The fact that, for example, composite materials make up 25% of the A380’s airframe structure (50% in the smaller Boeing Dreamliner), with plastic that’s been reinforced with glass-fibre, carbon-fibre or quartz-fibre used throughout for wings, fuselage, tail and doors. Using such plastics not only reduces the weight, but also enables the A380 to be the first aircraft to have smoothly contoured wing cross sections (as opposed to portioned wind sections) for maximum aerodynamic efficiency.

And there’s the new materials used throughout, such as GLARE (GLAss-Reinforced fibre metal laminate), which is not only lighter in and of itself than the more traditional aluminium, but it can also be laser welded, thus reducing the weight load even further. And how about the introduction of advanced systems capabilities taken straight from the advanced military aircraft, such as the F-22 Raptor and the Eurofighter Typhoon. Noise reduction has also been a priority, especially to comply with Heathrow’s stringent noise regulations where it is assumed the A380 will a frequent visitor. The combination of new-generation engines, such as the Rolls-Royce Trent 900 or Engine Alliance GP7000 with its improved aerodynamic performance mean that the A380 is significantly quieter than today’s largest aircraft, producing only half as much noise on take-off and landing.

Smarter, bigger, cleaner, and quieter… and also greener it seems, (although Boeing’s 787 Dreamliner is giving it a run for its money on that front – see below) with fuel efficiency of less than three litres per passenger per 100 kilometres. Put it all together (the advanced materials and systems, state-of-the-art aerodynamics, all-new engines) and you get a result, and one that has ‘more economical’ written all over it, with seat-mile costs 20% lower and a range over 1,000 nautical miles longer than the largest aircraft flying today. And how about a dose of global harmony thrown in for good measure? As the largest civil wide-body aircraft ever, the Airbus A380 has been designed in close collaboration with major airlines, airports, and airworthiness authorities. It’s like something out of a comic book hero strip dating from the 1950s; the difference being, of course, that this has already happened rather than being some far fetched idea of what the future might hold.

Tailored service
Another futuristic aviation idea used in comic strips and sci fi movies was of having your own personal flying machine that could be hailed as and when needed, much like a taxi. And that’s starting to become a reality too, with the impressive service now offered by America DayJet, the worlds’s first ‘per-seat, on-demand’ plane service. Connecting a raft of smaller cities in Southeastern America, DayJet has spent five years perfecting its complex software to fully automate its fleet operations system. When a customer punches in a route and preferred times online, DayJet can immediately calculate the best possible schedule and price with the most efficient use of crews and machines and enabling the airline to offer on-demand flights at a modest premium.

© Claire Burdett.

First published in ‘What’s The Future?’ (WTF) Magazine 2009

June 2011
Airbus continue to push the boundaries with design, their transparent vision of the future, unveiled in Paris this month. http://edition.cnn.com/2011/TRAVEL/06/14/airbus.future.cabin/index.html?eref=edition_travel&utm_source=feedburner&utm_medium=feed&utm_campaign=Feed%3A+rss%2Fedition_travel+%28RSS%3A+Travel%29


Pulling Wheelies – Future of Biking

Pick up and drop off bike hire is getting more and more popular in European cities.

Bike hire station in Toulouse, France

Suddenly it seems that the humble two-wheeled iron horse has become hot news, with the range of options aimed at filling every niche in the market increasing year on year.

In fact, from funky folding options to robust mountain bikes that are almost weightless, to ride and park city schemes and stylish bespoke makeovers, the bike is fast becoming a central part of worldwide future transportation.

So why now?

Afterall, the bike has been around for a century and a half, so what is suddenly driving its popularity and catapulting it into the realms of uber cool for the first time in well over 100 years? The first, and most obvious reason, for Westerners at least, is pollution and carbon footprints. Bike riding is non polluting, and bike making is generally less polluting than other means of mass produced transportation, such as cars, which obviously means that by choosing a bike over a car you reduce your carbon footprint.

Then there is sustainability. Bikes are cheap to buy and maintain, rarely go wrong and fixing them isn’t usually horribly expensive, unless you have gone truly high end (in which case we’ll assume you can afford your F1 bike!). In addition, traffic congestion doesn’t really affect bike riders, and neither does high parking charges, or indeed the ability to park anywhere at all in some urban areas. The bike is suddenly looking highly attractive…

And finally there’s the issue of lifestyle and fitness, which is an important factor in the sedentary Western world, where fun and sociability are also pegged as good reasons by enthusiasts, despite the weather in Britain threatening put a bit of a dampener on that one, although if the sun is shining the appeal is obvious. Indeed, the trend to get on yer bike is so pronounced that even in the UK, where the cycling hours per person per year is a mere 38 miles a year per person compared with 652 miles a year clocked up in Denmark for every person, there is now a dating website for cycling enthusiasts! See www.cyclingsingles .com if this floats your boat (or pumps your tyres).

Style, design and function
So back to the actual bike. How would you like it, sir or madam?, because let’s be honest here, no longer is a bike just “a vehicle with only two wheels, which is held together by a pipe. The people sit above the pipe and push forward with movements of their feet,” as they were described by one of the Chinese delegates visiting Paris in 1866. Now your bike is a statement of you, and can be as simple, unique, or technical as you choose.

Indian Cool Revival
Following hot on the heels of the phenomenal universal success of Bollywood comes the cool-than-cool bicycles of India. Why so fabulous? Combine funky Indian British style with sturdiness and functionality, throw in low production costs, and you have a winning combination on any continent, a trend bourn out by the current cycle-crazy Dutch love affair for Indian imports. Check out Hero’s Bicycles (www.herocycles.com) offer a sturdy and funky all-pink “Star-Girl” that has taken the subcontinent by storm and is starting to make an appearance in trendy European cities such as Copenhagen.

Dutch City Bikes
Old fashioned sit-up-and-begs are actually the best urban bikes of choice, as the huge numbers used in China and India demonstrate. This is because they offer the urban cyclist a better view than do racing or mountain bikes, which is essential when negotiating through the traffic or checking for oncoming traffic at intersections or thoughtless pedestrians stepping off the pavement. The design is also more practical for the work-clothes-wearing commuter, while a basket and additional storage makes perfect sense when you have a handbag or laptop to transport…the trouble is that they aren’t, well, very cool. Or rather, they weren’t very cool, until now. If your fancy hasn’t be tickled by the Bollywood bling of Indian imports (see above) and yet you still want something that isn’t frumpy, then check out Dutch city bikes, where design and function come together to create something simple, nifty, and practical. See www.jorgandolif.com for inspiration.

At the Cutting Edge of the Mountain
When it comes to technological advances few can match Scotts. This innovative firm has its roots in the middle of the last century when they were the first to come up with the modern-day ski pole design. Since then, Scotts have made it company policy to stay one step ahead of the game with technical advances in the sports arena. They launched their first foray into mountain biking in 1992 with the introduction of the first full-suspension mountain bike, and this was swiftly followed in 1995 by ‘Endorphin’, the first carbon fibre mountain bike. Their latest state-off-the-art baby is the ‘Ransom’, a fully set up, long-travel mountain bike that offers really low weight, deliberately designed crash proofing, and ultra-practical touches, such as bottle holder, enclosed cable lines, and unique triple chamber high pressure ‘Equalizer’ shock system for the smoothest ride in the most challenging conditions.

Folding Bikes
There’s a lot of innovation in the area of folding bikes, although practicalities (wet bikes, cumbersome fold downs, small wheels making the cycling more effort) dictate that these are likely to remain novelties rather than have mass appeal. However, if it ticks your boxes, then you have an increasingly wide and varied choice, most off which are already in production. Check out the chopper-esque ‘Go-Bike’, with its neon orange frame and chopped front end, or the A-framed ‘Strida 3’ that folds down to what looks like a unicycle (but is easy to transport because you can wheel it rather than carry it), and the ‘A-bike’, which most likely has the smallest wheels ever seen on a bicycle. And then there’s the funky ‘eZee Quando’, which looks rather like it’s been made from reclaimed metal tubing, and the prototype ‘Locust’, designed by Josef Cadek in bright green and yellow around a circular centre frame (the bike folds into that; very neat), but which unfortunately looks as if it has just been delivered from Toys R Us.

Customised Bikes
Want something truly unique? You and many others it seems, if up and coming companies such Specialbikes, based in Manchester, are anything to go by. The company takes old bikes and refurbishes them using state of the art parts and highend craftsmanship to create sleek and stylish one-of-a-kind bicycles. Frames are stripped down and sandblasted, and then recoated in a variety of eye-popping colours to each customer’s individual specifications. Offering a unique blend of recycling and customisation, customers can either have their own bikes refurbished or by a ready refurbished one from Specialbike’s stocks.

On yer bike– Schemes and innovations around the world

City Bike Sharing
Schemes for bike sharing and have become the newest 21st century thing in European cities, including Paris, Barcelona, London, and Frankfurt. Exactly how each works varies depending on the operator and city, but all include bikes being parked in busy areas, such as tube stations and public buildings, key interchanges and universities. Some involve clients pre-registering and paying a set fee or the user fee being taken from their registered card; others, such as ‘City Bikes’ in Copenhagen simply require the insertion of a coin to unlock the bike, which are funded by the government and corporate sponsors. All bikes must be returned to a proper rack, much like a paid-for supermarket trolley.

Taxi Bike Rescue
Ever ridden your bike into work and then watched in growing dismay as the clouds open and you know you either have to a) be utterly drenched riding home or b) lug it on public transport to the severe disapproval of your fellow travellers, even if it’s a fold away? Well, this is a dilemma of the past in London since the launch of Climatecars, an eco-friendly taxi service who offer a bicycle rescue service. Each taxi carries a bicycle rack and the extra service is offered at no extra charge. Bargain.

Electric Bikes in China
The world leader in terms of two-wheeled power has recently discovered the joys of the electric bike, or e-bike. Giving the option of using human power or electricity (from a rechargeable battery), with zero local emissions. National E-bike Standards require top speeds of no more than 20km/h, although most bikes are believed to go faster than this owing to consumer demands coupled with lax enforcement of the standard. While there are estimated to be over 450 million bicycles nationally, there are thought to be over 20 million e-bikes in China, with popularity peaking in areas where people are under served by public transport or where they need to commute for long distances.

Brazilian Bike Bus Gyms
In Rio de Janeiro, the Bus Bike is now on the road. The Bus Bike must be the world’s first mobile gym, and is a modified bus containing 16 exercise bikes and offering bike classes with an instructor, as well as changing rooms, fridge and sound system. Members can get on and off at three pre-prescribed stops, and the round trip lasts 45 minutes. Brilliant for people not near enough to a gym for them to visit in their lunchtimes, while watching the buzz and diversity of Rio during your exercise workout must certainly beats the mindless television in the [static] gym.

Indian Re-cycle
Many charities, such as Re-cycle, are refurbishing unwanted bicycles in Britain and other Western European countries, refurbishing them and sending them out to several locations in Africa. Here they are distributed to the most needy and necessary repair and maintenance skills  taught on the ground. Beneficiaries include children, many of whom need to walk upwards of 5 miles each way to and from school; commuters and farm workers; outreach workers, such as medical personnel, enabling them to bring their skills in to more inaccessible places to help the local population; and women who have to deal with a myriad of demands, such as carrying water and goods, getting to and from work, fetching goods to market or children to school, relatives, or other childcare.

And finally, if you needed any more convincing that the bike is the transportation of now and future times, bus-type advertising has hit bikes in the Netherlands.

Here a scheme has been launched to give free bikes to students in return to the bikes carrying the sponsors advertising on a 25cm triangular billboard, as well as fenders and mudguards. So far 22 universities are participating in the scheme and over 4,000 students have signed up.

© Claire Burdett. Please only reproduce this article with permission, in its entirety and with a hyperlink to www.claireburdett.com. Thank you.

First published in WTF magazine, 2007


Fashion Spyder

Occasionally something comes along that fills a niche so neatly that you can’t ever imagine how you did without out it.

Spyder ski wear is cutting edge and iconic

Spyder ski wear is cutting edge and iconic

For skiers and outdoors enthusiasts, that something is Spyder wear, first launched over 30 years ago and still breaking new ground every year with their revolutionary technological breakthroughs, cool designs and innovative features, with specially designed clothing for adventurers and skiers alike.

Take their limited edition jacket launched a couple of years ago, which combines innovative fabric MP3 controls with high technology ski wear. The full limited edition outfit includes the jacket, with an integrated iPod employing Eleksen’s smart textile technology. In an amazing fusion of future technology with existing design techniques, Sypder have built the jacket using  ElekTex, Eleksen’s patented conductive fabric touch pad technology, to transform the sleeve into an electronic control panel, allowing the wearer to play, pause and skip tracks simply by touching the control buttons on the arm. The suit is crafted in full stretch fabric with a Dermizax-MP waterproof membrane, exclusive X-static silver fibre insulation, Spylon water repellent coating, and Spyder Heat, their special technology that captures and retains the wearer’s body heat for extended thermal protection.

So what’s the technology behind the integrated iPod? Eleksen’s ElekTex fabric is essentially a sandwich of conductive textiles with two outer layers separated by a partially conductive inner layer. Eleksen’s core technology, ElekTex, is based around a unique sensing fabric, which opens the door to a whole new range of ‘soft’ products as both sensor and interconnectivity are fabric and eliminate the need for external hard components.

Very clever stuff.

And their design innovations just keep on coming, as enthusiasts, such as the US Ski Team and the Canadian Alpine and Freestyle Teams, are well aware. Their Venom brand is designed for cross country, backcountry and freestyle skiers and safety is a prime consideration, so the jacket interior lining sports a white cross on a red background, a universal symbol for distress. Backpack waistband waist entry portals allow the pack straps to be secured under the jacket, not over, so the jacket can be removed more easily, while their updated technology allows an even higher warmth-to-weight ratio, with built in vents in many designs to prevent over heating. They achieve this by their use of patented insulation solutions that use a unique blend of ultra-fine multi-diameter fibres that are specially treated and water resistant, to help form a dynamic insulating structure.

Other innovative features in their suits include the built in shock protectors, which are made from specially engineered material with Intelligent Molecules, which flow with you as you move but lock together on impact to absorb shock. The Intelligent Molecules react instantly, and then when the impact is over they instantly return to their free flowing state, again and again and again.

© Claire Burdett. Please only reproduce this article with permission, in its entirety and with a hyperlink to www.claireburdett.com. Thank you.

First published in WTF magazine, 2008. Claire writes, blogs and tweets about technology at The Funky Agency.

NB To see how technology-to-wear has accelerated since this article was written just over a year ago, see http://gadgetwise.blogs.nytimes.com/2009/10/02/a-winter-jacket-that-charges-your-gadgets/#comment-40685


The Train Line

The fastest train so far, The Maglev, is powered by magnets

The fastest train so far, The Maglev, is powered by magnets

The history of trains is beloved of every young trainspotter and uber-geek, and it does make fantastic reading.

From the revolutionary Rocket through to the high speed journeys of the Mallard and the Flying Scotsman, Japan’s sleek electric Bullet and France’s pride and joy, the TVRs, and on to the mindblowingly-fast Maglev, it is true to say that train travel has come along way, baby.

Of them all, the world’s fastest train, the Maglev, is perhaps the longest- and most eagerly- awaited. Because despite it being a frankly futuristic concept of a train running on magnetic tracks, there has been an astonishing seven decades between the first (German) patent in 1934 and the first commercial service launched in Shanghai, China, in 2004. Other commercially operated lines now exist in Japan, most famously the Linimo, a magnetic levitation train line in Aichi, near the city of Nagoya.

Unbelievably quiet apart from the ‘whoosh’ of air as it passes, the sleek Maglev train ‘flies’ – yes, it really is officially described as flying – at an incredible 300 kilometres per hour in two minutes flat, tops 400 kph in three minutes, and has been known to go over 500kph during test runs. That’s just over two hours from Paris to Rome, making it only 10 minutes slower than taking the plane!

Ahhh, the plane, yes, that’s what it reminds you of, because despite having no wings (or engine or wheels either, but more of that later), the Maglev is much more like a plane than it is a train, and so is as revolutionary as the Stephenson’s Rocket was back in 1829. Transrapid, the German firm that developed the system, describes the Maglev as “the first fundamental innovation in the field of railway technology since the invention of the railway.”

So how does it do it? Maglev is short for magnetic levitation, and magnets are the magic ingredients. In practice this means that the trains float a centimetre above the guideway that replace the old train tracks using the basic principles of magnets. Known as electromagnetic suspension (EMS), it’s just like the science you did at school or when you played around with those ladybird or frog magnets when you were a kid – basically the opposite poles attract and the like poles repel each other. Electromagnets are similar to other magnets in that they attract metal objects, but the magnetic pull is temporary, and the magnetic field that this creates is how the Maglev train rail system works. Even its components are simple, comprising of:

• A large electrical power source (no conventional engine)

• Metal coils lining the guideway (no overhead cables)

• Large guidance magnets attached to the underside of the train (no wheels)

No conventional engine, huh? So how does it move? Back to your frog magnetic ‘running’ (ie being pushed) away from it’s twin across your school desk. Basically the train runs the same way – the magnetic field created by the electrified coils in the guideway walls and the track combine to propel the train as it floats on a cushion of air. And that completely eliminates friction, which when combined with the trains’ aerodynamic design allows these trains to reach unprecedented ground transportation speeds.

The best-known high-speed maglev currently operating commercially is the IOS (initial operating segment) demonstration line of the German-built Transrapid train in Shanghai, China, that transports people 30 km (18.6 miles) to the airport in just 7 minutes 20 seconds, achieving a top velocity of 431 km/h (268 mph), averaging 250 km/h (150 mph).

However, all of the operational implementations of maglev technology have had little, or no, overlap with wheeled train technology and so are not compatible with conventional rail tracks. Consequently, Maglevs must be designed as new and complete transportation systems, which have proved one of the main stumbling blocks to their development to date.

So why with all this exciting futuristic train travel in other parts of the world, why hasn’t a new age of the train dawned right here in Britain? Let’s not go in to another “Britain is rubbish” fest here, because it simply isn’t true, despite the inescapable dire state of our nation’s railway. It’s simply that we pushed out the frontiers of the train so fast and so early that is an engineering, logistical and financial nightmare to add electric cabling, such as is needed for the TVRs, to most of our existing railways because of the tunnels and bridges and other factors.

Just think of Victorian technological breakthroughs, such as Isambard Kingdom Brunel’s extension to the Great Western Railway along the south Devon coast to Plymouth, which still uses a system of five tunnels through cliffs and a four-mile sea wall, and you’ll understand the engineering problems inherent in converting our train system. Basically the whole thing needs scrapping and rebuilding, instead of patching and adapting, and the cost of that would be prohibitive. So probably not something that is likely to happen in our lifetime.

However, in the here and now, countries like China, the United States or Australia, where there is a vast expanse of open country largely unconnected by train, could easily opt for a Maglev system. And let’s not forget that the Maglev is pollution-free, so if the megapowers take advantage of its technology, at least it will benefit the rest of us at the same time, even if we can’t just step on and enjoy the flight.

© Claire Burdett. Please only reproduce this article with permission, in its entirety and with a hyperlink to www.claireburdett.com. Thank you.


The Future of Aviation

A long time ago the story of powered flight was started by bicycle makers on beaches on either side of the Atlantic – the Wright brothers in America and John Gaunt here in our very own Stockport. The earliest planes were, quite literally, fragile air kites made of wooden struts and canvas, with wheels and propellers powered by cogs and chains.

At the threshold of the 21st century, flight has developed to a point where huge passenger aircrafts furnished with gyms and beds, bars and entertainment, have launched into our skies. These airbuses, as reported in the previous issue of WTF, have been made possible by the incredible technological development of engineering, chemistry, and electronics, where the actual way things are made and the materials from which they are created have been applied to avionics in order to reduce the weight and bulk of aircraft to an all time low, thus allowing larger aircraft to fly safely.

Amazing stuff, yet where does it leave us, and what is in store for avionics as it goes forward through the next century? Have they really taken it as far as it can go with the Airbus, or will we see commercially viable supersonic, even hypersonic, flights in the future? Because despite all the hype surrounding the Skycar and Virgin Galactic (as reported in WTF issue 1 – see www.wtfmagazine.co.uk for articles), the commercial application of the physics of aviation hasn’t really pushed forward very much since the huge strides made in the mid 20th century when airflight went from the subsonic speeds of the Wright brothers and the early aircraft of the 20th century through to the transonic speeds of commercial carriers of the 1930s-1940s. And viewing Concorde as the blip that it undoubtedly was in 20th century avionics, modern commercial flights still cruise at subsonic speeds owing to the problems associated with breaking through the ‘sound barrier’ or to be more precise, travelling faster than the speed of sound.

Ah, the sound barrier, which was one of the great urban myths of the early 20th century, because scientists were for a long time baffled by its very existence and whether it could be ‘broken’ and supersonic or hypersonic flight achieved. Despite misgivings (and remember that they had no computers, simulations or animated design packages then with which to test their theories), physicists worked with engineers through the middle decades of the 20th century until the quest to create an airplane that could fly supersonically culminated in the iconic Concorde. Beautiful and technologically advanced as Concorde was, however, it was never commercially viable and the last one was withdrawn from service in 2003. And thus the achievement of commercially viable speeds beyond that of sound seemed to be dealt a deathblow that was hard to believe given the phenomenal advances in technology that was happening all around it. Only avionics seemed to be going backwards rather than forwards, and as Jeremy Clarkson, another technology and speed buff like ourselves, and who was one of the passengers on the last BA Concorde flight on October 24, 2003, said, paraphrasing Neil Armstrong to describe the retiring of Concorde: “This is one small step for a man, but one huge leap backwards for mankind”.

So why is the application of technology to airplanes so complex and why is it so difficult to make aircraft that fly faster, even much faster, than the speed of sound, commercially viable? And what is the speed of sound, anyway, and why does it matter to aircraft?

The speed of sound

If you think of air as being like water (it’s easier to visualise than air for all us who aren’t pilots, physicists or uber-geeks), then when an aircraft moves through it at speed, the molecules become disturbed and agitated and leap about and over the aircraft, like water will around the prow and body of a ship or submarine. This then affects the speed of the aircraft by ‘dragging’ at it, but exactly how and to what extent is dependent on the ratio of the speed of the aircraft to the speed of sound.

The speed of sound is typically measured at 760 mph, and is given the special Mach parameter (it’s known as Mach in honour of Ernst Mach, a physicist who studied gas dynamics in the late 19th century) of Mach 1. When an aircraft flies at very much less than the speed of sound, it’s said to be subsonic. Typical speeds for subsonic aircraft are less than 250 mph, and the Mach number M is therefore much less than one (and is written as M << 1). For subsonic aircraft, compressibility effects are practically nil and the air density remains nearly constant, which basically means it’s pretty calm and unchanged by the aircraft that is flying through it.

The first powered aircraft to fly subsonically was the Wright Brothers’ 1903 airborne bicycle, and modern general aviation and commuter airliners continue to fly at this speed because propellers provide a very fuel-efficient propulsion system, thus making the aircraft very economically viable. The wings of subsonic aircraft are typically rectangular in form and made of lightweight aluminium, although we have already noted, the earliest planes used wood and cloth in their wing construction.

As aircraft go faster, however, some of the aircraft’s energy (speed, heat) compresses the air and changes its density where it is close up against the plane. This compressibility effect changes how much pressure and drag there is on the aircraft, and this obviously becomes more of a factor as the speed increases and the aircraft approaches what is known as transonic flight. Typical speeds for transonic aircraft are greater than 250 mph but less than 760 mph, which is the speed of sound. In transonic flight, the Mach number M is nearly equal to one (M ~= 1) and the small disturbances in the airflow are transmitted to other locations isentropically or with constant entropy. Lost you yet, have we?

Ok, think of water flowing through a nozzle. When the flow is constant and ideal (not dribbling or gushing) it is scientifically described as ‘isentropic’, a combination of the Greek word “iso” (same) and entropy. Entropy is the second law of thermodynamics (energy is the first law), and without going in to the formulae, their relationship is the basis of pretty much everything, with the first law expressing how things remain the same, while the second law expresses all that which changes and what motivates the change ie the fundamental time-asymmetry in all real-world processes. So to get back to our nozzle, what comes through (ie the air in this instance) is constantly in motion and change (entropy), but in a constant manner (the same = iso). So in transonic flight, the air disturbances stay fairly constant in so far as they are ruffled, with localised changes. It’s simply a complicated way of saying it’s a bit choppy but constant.

However, a sharp disturbance, such as a power surge into supersonic speed or a boost into the realms of hypersonic speed, generates a shock wave that affects both the lift and drag of an aircraft as it is pushed beyond the speed of sound. And when it does that all sorts of interesting things start to happen.

Now, the first powered aircraft to explore transonic flight were the high performance fighters of World War II, and these aircraft seemed to encounter a so called ‘sound barrier’ where it was found that drag was increasing faster than the thrust. This led to speculation in the mid-1940s that manned flight was not possible at speeds above the speed of sound, even though the muzzle velocity of rifle bullets is supersonic.

So what is supersonic exactly? Its when the aircraft is going faster than 750mph, the speed of sound, but slower than 1500mph, so the Mach ratio is 1 < M < 3, and initially this was thought to be an impossible thing for human beings to endure. However, the flight of the Bell X-1A in 1947 proved that people could fly faster than sound, and when Concorde (Mach 2.03) was developed it became the supersonic pin up, a luxurious and incredibly fast design icon that meant any person with enough money could fly supersonic. In style

The problems inherent with supersonic flight are, however, myriad, include increased drag, air compression and air density, which we have already discussed and which, in supersonic flight, are negatively affected by shock waves, mass flow choking, and sonic boom.

Shock waves
Like an ordinary wave, shock waves carry energy and are characterized by an abrupt, nearly discontinuous change in the characteristics of the medium. Across a shock wave there is always an extremely rapid rise in pressure, temperature and density of the flow, thus affecting the speed.

Mass flow choking
To understand mass flow choking we must return to our nozzle, and understand that when the air gets too hot or pressured as it tries to move through the nozzle it can change its density and become static, or choked. This then causes loss of thrust, and therefore loss of speed.

Sonic boom
The noise of Concorde, and of all supersonic jets, was distinctive and unavoidable. The result of sonic bomb, it is where the shocks caused by the aircraft passing through the air creating a series of pressure waves in front of it and behind it, similar to the bow and stern waves created by a boat. These waves travel at the speed of sound, and as the speed of the aircraft increases the waves are forced together, or compressed, because they cannot avoid each other, and eventually merge into a single shock wave travelling at the speed of sound (761 mph), 167 megawatts per square meter, and exceeding 200 decibels. Basically it generates enormous amounts of sound energy, much like an explosion.  While this isn’t unknown in the natural world, because thunder is a type of natural sonic boom created by the rapid heating and expansion of air in a thunderstorm, it’s pretty unpleasant if you happen to live in the flight path. The upshot is that you used to be able to get to New York before the time you left Paris or London, as Concorde’s cruising speed exceeded the top speed of the solar terminator ie it was able to overtake or outrun the spin of the earth. Neat, and much publicised by BA with their “Arrive before you leave” campaign.

So what happens when you make aircraft go even faster? Well then you get in to rockets, Virgin Galactic and Moller Skycar territory, and the realms of hypersonic flight.

Hypersonic flight

When aircraft speeds are much greater than the speed of sound, the aircraft is said to be hypersonic. Typical speeds for hypersonic aircraft are greater than 3000 mph and Mach number M greater than five (M > 5) although NASA’s experimental space scramjet, the X-43A, set a new speed record for aircraft on November 16, 2004. In the unmanned test flight, the plane reached Mach 10, 10 times the speed of sound, or about 6,600 miles per hour.

The chief characteristic of hypersonic aerodynamics is that the temperature of the flow is so great that the chemistry of the diatomic molecules of the air must be considered. At low hypersonic speeds, the molecular bonds vibrate, which changes the magnitude of the forces generated by the air on the aircraft. At high hypersonic speeds, the molecules break apart, producing an electrically charged plasma around the aircraft, and large variations in air density and pressure then occur as a result of shock waves and expansions. For Mach numbers greater than 5, the frictional heating of the airframe by the air becomes so high that very special nickel alloys are required for the structure and so in some hypersonic aircraft it is proposed that the skin will be actively cooled by circulating fuel through the skin to absorb the heat.

So can we have manned hypersonic flight? Well, we already have, with the X-15, the SpaceShipOne, and the Space Shuttle during re-entry. Others that are in the development phases for commercial application are the Virgin Galactic and the Moller Skycar, both of which we have reported on previously.

SpaceShipOne was an experimental air-launched (it was slung below the belly of the ‘White Knight’, a turbofan-powered airplane that carries the SpaceShipOne up to 45 to 50,000 feet) suborbital (ie it didn’t go right round the Earth) space plane that used a hybrid rocket motor to propel it and the SpaceShipOne and its pilot, Michael Melvill, to an altitude of 62.5 miles (100 km) above the Earth’s surface. Which officially makes Michael an astronaut.

SpaceShipOne was developed by aviation company, Scaled Composites, wholly without government funding. On June 21, 2004, it made the first privately-funded human spaceflight, and on October 4, it won the $10 million Ansari X PRIZE. The competition challenged independent designers to safely put three people into space twice in two weeks with a reusable spacecraft. It did so, and in addition, during its testing regimen SpaceShipOne set a number of important ‘firsts’, including first privately funded aircraft to exceed Mach 2 and Mach 3, first privately funded spacecraft to exceed 100km altitude, and first privately funded reusable spacecraft.

Much like Branson and Moller, SpaceShipOne’s creators at Scaled Composites, the company behind the project, envision a world where space travel is a thriving commercial business catering to anyone who has the desire to venture to the stars. However, with development costs estimated to be $25-million plus, this isn’t likely to be any time soon, although with ever accelerating technical achievements in the field of avionics, it may yet be sooner than we think.

So where do you stand?
Is the future supersonic as spearheaded by the ‘Save Concorde’ group’s campaign, who are committed to returning a Concorde to service, or hypersonic with SpaceShipOne? Or perhaps you, like Richard Branson, who keeps his foot firmly in both camps, think there’s room for both? After all, the future is flying closer all the time.

© Claire Burdett. Please only reproduce this article with permission, in its entirety and with a hyperlink to www.claireburdett.com. Thank you.


More Forward Please

The history and future of robotics

The history and future of robotics

When it comes to the cutting edge of robotics, the Japanese are sharpening it year-on-year while the rest of the world simply watches on in wonder. Maybe it’s because they are so interested in the whole subject that they are so driven to explore the whole area of robotics, in the same way, perhaps, that the Russians were particularly interested in space travel and so were the first to explore that arena.

Whatever the reason, practically whatever you might want crave in
the way of a robotic entity, from manservant or receptionist,
companion to dog, or even cat, has been made created in the last
couple of decades by one of the Japanese manufacturers. True, not
all of them have been profitable and so have, in some cases, gone
out of production, or in other cases haven’t quite made it to market
as yet. But the technology is there. And the ability to use that
technology to turn a dream into a tangible reality.

So, let’s start with ASIMO (Advanced Step in Innovative Mobility),
which is currently the most high profile of the huge Japanese
robotics family. No short timeline this, as the crux of the challenge
was to create a robot that could walk upright on two legs in a stable
and intuitive manner, something that has taken Honda two decades
to achieve. And if you are wondering why they would bother with
something, well, so mundane, the engineers see ASIMO as
something that can help people in need, a robotic replacement for
tasks that are too dangerous for humans to perform, such as
fighting forest fires or cleaning up toxic waste. Such situations are
highly likely to involve uneven surfaces underfoot and a stranded
robot might as well not be there, hence the quest to create ASIMO.

Honda’s first humanoid robot, P1, introduced in 1987, was a rather
startling 6’ 2” (nearly 2 metres) tall. The reaction was unanimously
negative to this size of humanoid robot, and so the height was
swiftly adjusted in the following versions and the present P4 is a
much more manageable 5’ 2” (1.20m) tall, which means it is at eye
level with a seated adult. The present ASIMO (P4) can run, walk on
uneven slopes and surfaces, turn smoothly, climb stairs, and reach
for and grasp objects, as you have probably already seen on
Honda’s charming adverts. It can also use its camera to map its
environment and avoid knocking into obstacles, as well as
comprehend and respond to simple voice commands and recognize
the faces of individuals.

People instantly seem to take to ASIMO, perhaps because of its
chunky, what Honda call ‘friendly’ design, which is reminiscent of
Star Wars’ R2D2. The same can be said about Sony’s robotic dog
AIBO (Artificial Intelligence BOt in English, and meaning
‘companion’ in Japanese), which was produced by Sony for seven
years and sold well over 130,000 units worldwide before being
discontinued a year ago following a cost cutting drive.

Whatever standard you measure against, Sony’s AIBO represents
the most sophisticated product ever offered in the consumer robot
marketplace. AIBO was programmed to walk, feel objects with its
feet, ‘see’ in colour via camera (and take photographs), hear in
stereo, and understand commands – although as Sony were at
pains to point out, because they strived for it to show true dog-like
behaviour, it was also programmed to occasionally ignore them.

It also has (and we’ll revert to the present tense now because
although production has ceased there are still thousands out there
in the world continuing to do their robotic doggy thing) the ability to
learn, adapt to its environment, and express emotion. In fact, these
robotic pets are considered to be autonomous robots, since they are
able to learn and mature based on external stimuli from their owner
or environment. Owners responded to this by forming emotional
attachments to their AIBOs, especially when SONY introduced the
sophisticated software, AIBOware, which enabled the robot to be
raised from pup to fully grown adult while going through various
stages of development.

AIBOs robust platform also made it particularly attractive to
students of computer science and robotics. In the technical arena,
the RoboCup competition has used AIBO since 1998. Dr. Manuela
Veloso, professor of computer science at Carnegie Mellon University
and a leader in international RoboCup competition, praised the AIBO
for its contributions to research of multi-robot systems:

“Teams of AIBO soccer players have captured the hearts of
researchers and spectators while they search for the ball, struggle
to take possession, beautifully move, kick, and aim at the goal.
They eventually score, dance with happiness, and receive roaring
cheers of enthusiasm and praise.

The RoboCup Federation and Research Community are in debt to
SONY for the development of these remarkable AIBO robots which
researchers and students have used in research and development of
four-legged robot soccer teams since 1998.”

In the consumer arena, there are numerous internet ‘roboblogs’
filmed independently by individual AIBOs as they wander around
taking periodic pictures, mainly of ankles and chair legs, to be fair,
but still, these robots are definitely part of the family, not the
furniture, and Sony certainly spared no expense with the creation of
the AIBO. The sounds were programmed by acclaimed Japanese
DJ/avant-garde composer Nobukazu Takemura, who is considered
by many to be one of the foremost masters at fusing mechanic and
organic concepts, while the bodies of the ‘3x’ series (Latte and
Macaron, the round-headed AIBOs released in 2001) were designed
by visual artist Katsura Moshino.

But perhaps you prefer cats? Then you may have been tempted by
the NeCoRo, a fur-covered cat animoid launched by Omron in 2001
at about the same cost as AIBO. Omron is a company best known
for electronic health products such as blood pressure gauges and
digital thermometers, and the NeCoRo was initially designed as a
replacement for use in therapy and in cases of emotional
deprivation. However, NeCoRo had glass eyes, a synthetic fur coat,
and has been described in some quarters as looking like an
animated zombie cat, so perhaps the design wasn’t completely
thought through for the market.

That apart, the technology that was utilized in the NeCoRo was right
up there with the best, as it was able to perceive human action and
thoughts via internal sensors of touch, sound, sight, and
orientation. In addition, using 15 actuators inside the body, it
behaved in response to its feelings, so became angry if someone
was violent towards it, and purred when stroked, cuddled, and
treated with lots of love. Like AIBO, NeCoRo was designed to inspire
emotional attachment and adjust its personality to that of the owner
through a learning/growth function.

Just a shame it was looked so spooky, although Segatoy’s Yume
Neko Smile ( ‘Dream Cat Smile’ in English) robot cat, which was
released this year, seems to have addressed the problems inherent
with the NeCoRo. Yume Neko Smile has the functionality and cat-
like programming, plus it looks and feels incredibly like the real
thing so people mistake it for a real cat! Owners report they just
want to keep on stroking it, which makes it purr and (very
realistically and exceptionally cutely), stretches out it toes when its
tummy is being stroked! Aargh…presumably it’s really aimed at all
those Japanese kids who are desperate to have a cat but can’t in
Japan’s tightly squeezed urban landscape, and it should be the
answer to their prayers as there’s definitely no spookiness about it
at all. Guaranteed.

But while the pets have been mesmerizing, it’s the humanoids that
have really clamoured for our collective attention. ASIMO is a an
example of what we collectively respond to in a robot, as is Toyota’s
Partner Robots, which are designed to function as personal
assistants and are described by Toyota as being “agile, warm and
kind and also intelligent enough to skilfully operate a variety of
devices in the areas of personal assistance, care for the elderly,
manufacturing, and mobility.”

Interestingly they also have artificial lips that Toyota claims have
the same finesse as human lips, apparently developed so that the
robots can play musical instruments. Although the mind boggles
slightly at the idea of a band of musical instrument-playing Toyota
bots, but perhaps it’s no odder than the robotic ‘elderly companion’,
ifBot, which was the winner of the 2003 Good Design Award, and
whose software was developed by Dream Supply, a Nagoya-based
IT firm. Standing just 45cm tall, the ifBot looks like a little alien
spaceman and is “designed to provide hours of companionship to
lonely elderly folks who don’t have a loved one to speak with.” This
is a big area of concern in present day Japan, and this little bot has
been designed to fill the void. To achieve it, the ifBot is pre-
programmed with millions of word phrase at about the level of a 5-
year-old child, which apparently helps keep elderly folks from
becoming forgetful by keeping their minds sharp. In addition, the
ifBot plays puzzles and memory games, sings songs, comments on
the weather, offers advice, and does medical checks. Seems more
like a babysitter than a carer, really, and maybe that’s how they will
pitch it when, and if, it loses its Japanese exclusivity and it is
eventually marketed to the West. Interestingly, the ‘Hello Kitty’
robot is produced by the same company, but this one is aimed more
at teenagers and children.

On a different stage, so to speak, is Takara Tomy’s Omnibot2007 i-
SOBOT. Certified by the Guinness Book of Records as the smallest
humanoid robot in production, it stands just 165mm tall, has an
LCD-equipped remote to controls its programmed motions, and also
responds to voice control. And it is a bit of a mover, able to play
music, dance, and respond to applause and other external stimulus,
and can also make its own punching and kicking sound effects, so
there could be some entertaining robo-duels (or duets!) if you had a
pair of them. The Omnibot2007 i-SOBOT CAMVersion includes a
camera that can send pictures to your PC or phone, and its head
can swivel 60° in each direction. Yes, it’s very neat and highly

In contrast to the stylised bots we have so far discussed, the robots
Repliee and Geminoid developed by Professor Hiroshi Ishiguro at
the ATR Intelligent Robotics and Communication Laboratories at
Osaka Universit, are what you would expect an AI robot to look like
– ie incredibly human.

Their skin is composed of silicone and appears highly realistic.
Internal sensors allow the Actroid models to react with a natural
appearance by way of air actuators placed at many points of
articulation in the upper body, so the robot looks like it is breathing.
The Actroid can also imitate human-like behaviour with slight shifts
in position, head and eye movements and the appearance of
breathing in its chest.

So far, movement in the lower body is limited, mainly because the
compressed air that powers the robot’s servo motors and most of
the computer hardware that operates the AI are external to the
unit, which is a contributing factor to the robot’s lack of locomotion
capabilities. The operation of the robot’s sensory system in tandem
with its air-powered movements make it quick enough to react to or
fend off potentially damaging approaches, such as a slap or a poke,
as well as the ability to react differently to more gentle kinds of
touch, such as a pat on the arm.

Additionally, the robot can also learn to imitate human movements
by facing a person who is wearing reflective dots at key points on
their body. By tracking the dots with its visual system and then
computing limb and joint movements to match what it sees, the
individual motion can then be ‘learned’ by the robot and repeated.

The interactive Actroids can also communicate on a rudimentary
level with humans by speaking. Microphones within those Actroids
record human speech and this is then filtered to remove
background noise, including the sounds of the robot’s own
operation. Speech recognition software is used to convert the audio
stream into words and sentences, and when spoken to they also use
a combination of ‘floor sensors and omnidirectional vision sensors’
in order to maintain eye contact with the speaker – to see this in
action, you can watch the videos posted on YouTube. It’s quite
incredible how humanoid they are.

In addition, the Actoids can respond in limited ways to body
language and tone of voice by changing their own facial
expressions, stance, and vocal inflection. It’s all very realistic,
although what the longterm practical application of the Actroids will
be is difficult to predict at this point. The company suggests that the
demand is as receptionists and as, perhaps, nurses, although the
high cost of hiring one at the moment is very high and possibly only
something a very high profile company would consider. Which is a
shame as the science and technology that have gone into
developing the Androids is immense.

Perhaps the best application, however, and one that would justify
the high cost of production, would be as a stand in presenter,
speaker or lecturer. This is precisely why the Geminoid was
developed by Professor Hiroshi Ishiguro in the first instance, and it
stands in very successfully for its human double in lectures when
the professor is unable to travel in from his home an hour away.
The robot is loaded with the lecture and the students get the
information they need, albeit at one remove. Genius.

We shall see. But with each new wave of new robotics (and trust us,
we have only scratched the surface in this article) it becomes
increasingly clear just how hard it has been for the Japanese to
transform their robot achievements into profit-making reality.
Interestingly, American robot firms, such as iRobot, while less
ambitious and cutting edge, have generally been more successful
than Japanese firms at marketing their non-industrial robots (like
their vacuum cleaning robot, Roomba) simply because they are so
focused on the practical applications rather than the fantasy of
humanoid or animalistic application. But then fantasy is where
breakthroughs occur, so without the Japanese it is likely there
would be little in the way of development.

So what’s the future, then? It’s looking very Japanese.

© Claire Burdett. Please only reproduce this article with permission, in its entirety and with a hyperlink to www.claireburdett.com. Thank you.

First published in WTF magazine, December 2007


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