Do androids dream of folding laundry? Robots take center stage at CEATEC Japan 2016
Remember Rosie, the humanoid maid from the 1960s cartoon The Jetsons? Well, it looks like we might not have to wait till 2062 to see a droid like her in the – er – flesh, if the exhibits at this year's CEATEC are anything to go by. From pint-sized bots such as Toyota's much-talked-about Kirobo Mini to table tennis-playing droids and singing vacuum cleaners, here's a look at some of the bots and gadgets that have stolen the show so far.
What: The world's first robot table tennis tutor
How it works: The FORPHEUS, now in its third iteration, is equipped with sensors that enable it to analyze its opponent's as well as the ball's position. Thanks to its most recent tweaks, it is faster and more sophisticated than before, and is now able to make a return no matter where the ball is played, as well as change its skill level to match the player's, which means it increases its difficulty level as you improve. That said, the goal of the robot is not to beat you but to help you improve your game by keeping the rally going.
Why it's important: Electronics company Omron has no plans to make the FORPHEUS available commercially. Rather it sees the technology behind it as one that makes the automation process in its factories more harmonious, owing to the machine's analytical abilities, which enable it to determine which tasks it can do to support its human counterparts. For Omron, this represents the third stage of the relationship between human beings and machines, one where it is no longer merely about improving productivity but helping people extend their own abilities and potential with the support of machines.
What: A 'hair clip' that lets deaf people feel sounds with their hair.
How it works: Just as cats are able to sense movements in the air with their whiskers, this device, which is surprisingly low-tech – being in essence a microphone with an amplifier –allows users to do the same with their hair. It translates sounds in the 30-90 dB range into 256 different levels of vibration and light, thereby enabling users to experience a wide spectrum of sounds. For people without much hair, there is another version that functions like an earring.
Why it's important: Because it's a game-changer that can improve the quality of life for people who are deaf. By wearing Ontenna, they can, for example, tell when someone is ringing the doorbell. Inventor Tatsuya Honda says he was inspired in part by childhood memories of his deaf schoolmates who were unable to hear the alarm go off during fire drills. At the moment, the Ontenna works better in quiet places as it is designed to pick up all kinds of sound, making it unsuitable for use in crowded areas, something that Honda and his team are trying to fix. While still in its beta stage, Honda hopes to make the device available commercially by 2020.
What: A robot that sorts your clean laundry and folds it for you. In other words, a godsend to anyone who hates this chore.
How it works: While Seven Dreamers, the company behind the fridge-like robot, would prefer to keep its proprietary technology a secret for now, the idea is that all users have to do is put their clean unsorted laundry into its bottom drawer. The robot's image-recognition algorithms will then help it identify the garments and how they should be folded. Users can program it to sort their clothes by color, type, and even owner.
Developed and produced in partnership with Panasonic and Daiwa House, the Laundroid has been in development for the past 10 years and is finally seeing the light of day. It's not unreasonable to assume that there are still improvements to be made – the robot currently takes an average of 10 minutes to fold a single garment, which is a lot longer than US rival FoldiMate's 10 seconds – but CEO Shin Sakane is confident enough to say that it will be available for pre-orders next March in Japan, though there's no word yet on how much it will cost. A limited number will also be made available in the US. Seven Dreamers also has plans to sell the Laundroid to nursing homes by 2018. We're waiting for the day it comes with a built-in washing machine and closet.
Why it's important: Um, did we mention it's a laundry-folding robot?
What: A robotic vacuum cleaner that sings cheerful pop tunes while it works.
How it works: A collaboration between Japanese firms Sharp and Yamaha, this prototype came about when the former's customers complained that they didn't like the noise produced by vacuum cleaners. As an experiment, Sharp paired its existing disc-shaped Cocorobo vacuum cleaner with Vocaloid, Yamaha's singing voice-synthesizer software to gauge the crowd's reaction at CEATEC. Mind you, this prototype is no mindless singing bot. It is capable of simple communication and playing music based on its owner's moods – for example, a cheerful tune if they are feeling depressed. In addition, a Sharp representative claims the Vocaloid model has feelings too and will not sing if it is feeling grumpy.
Why it's important: The Cocorobo Vocaloid vacuum is another example of a growing trend in Japan and around the world where companies are building robots that appeal to customers on an emotional level.
CEATEC, which stands for the Combined Exhibition of Advanced Technologies, is Japan's largest IT and electronics trade show. It is being held this year from October 4-7.