Expo robots still not ready for everyday life

Robots AP Nearly the real thing: Professor Hiroshi Ishiguro of Osaka University stands beside Repliee Q1expo during the Prototype Robot Exhibition in Nagakute, central Japan. The humanoid robot is covered in a skin-like substance and moves its mouth and shifts its torso as though it's breathing. Photo: AP

By Yuri Kageyama

Nagakute - 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 at the Prototype Robot Exhibition which starts on Thursday in central Japan, are designed to become part of everyday life, helping the sick, rescuing disaster victims and entertaining families.

The exhibit, which runs until June 19, aims to showcase Japan's leadership in the field of 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 robots to grow to 1,5-trillion yen (about R95-billion) by 2010, and to more than 4-trillion yen 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 manufacturer, 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 sometimes the robot delivers only a mishmash of scribbles, said Yukata Saito, spokesperson for developer Yoshikawa Kikai Seisakusho Corporation.

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 160km per hour. 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 the size of a small child that moves its arms and nods in synch to the sound of the human voice. Developers claim the robot makes communication easier and therapeutic especially for 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 programme 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."

More whimsical is the golden Kinshachi Robot that swims like a fish. The slithering robot has comical bulging eyes, but it has a serious purpose: to go into the ocean to monitor the safety of bridges and gather information for fishing, according to Ryomei Engineering Company, which also develops more lifelike carp and sea bream robots.

The robots, which originated as shipbuilding research, rent for about 100 000 yen a day. But there haven't been many requests to buy or rent them, said sales official Hiroo Minoda. - Sapa-AP

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