Archives: January 2006

Edo-period “robot” returns to life in Japan

30 Jan 2006

In a reference to Doraemon, Japan's most famous animated robotic cat, a Chinese person once remarked: "Lazy is the person who relies on robots in times of need." Though there may be some truth to the statement, it ignores Japan's long-held notion that robots (and their animated counterparts, such as Doraemon and Astro Boy) exist primarily to bring happiness to humankind. Many suggest that the development of robot manufacturing in Japan is built upon the strength of this affection.

The affection toward robots can be traced back to the karakuri mechanical dolls of the Edo period. One such doll is the mechanical "calligraphy writing doll," considered a masterpiece of karakuri craftsmanship. Recently returned to Japan after a long absence, the doll was constructed more than 150 years ago by Tanaka Hisashige, who is often referred to as the "Edison of Japan" and who served as a technical advisor for the Nabeshima feudal domain.

KarakuriThe "calligraphy writing doll" resembles a young man holding a brush in his right hand. With a series of movements fully controlled by precise automatic mechanisms, the young man dips his brush into ink and draws the kanji character for kotobuki ("blessing" or "longevity") on a sheet of paper in front of him. When finished, he seems to display a look of satisfaction to his onlookers.

Science historian Higashino Susumu (55), who recently succeeded in his 13-year effort to persuade a wealthy American collector to sell the prized karakuri back to Japan, is amazed by the sophistication of the restored doll. Mechanical dolls capable of writing were also made in China and Europe, but unlike this Japanese masterpiece, their pens had to be dipped in ink beforehand or they only moved from the elbow down -- thus, they remained confined to the realm of crude puppetry. Hisashige imbued his creation with a sense of reality, such as in the human-like way he follows the brush stroke with his eyes as he writes. "Hisashige's aim was not to create a doll, but to create a human," says Higashino.

This uncompromising precision in Hisashige's work embodies the manufacturing spirit that has underpinned the development of postwar Japan. Later in life at the age of 75, after the Meiji Restoration, Hisashige founded the engineering company that would later become Toshiba. And so it was, the Japanese manufacturing industry had its beginnings in Edo craftsmanship that was uniquely Japanese.

(The "calligraphy writing doll" is currently on display at Edo-Tokyo Museum through February 5, 2006. Regular demonstrations are held several times daily. A collection of 40 other karakuri is also on display.)

Check out the Youtube video of the calligraphy writing doll in action.

[Sources: Mainichi Shimbun, Edo-Tokyo Museum]

RFID-based retail support system to be tested

26 Jan 2006

On January 25, Fujitsu, AEON and Dai Nippon Printing announced plans to conduct a trial run of a retail support system that uses IC tags and data display terminals. In this retail service system of the future, customers will be able access a variety of product information by electronically reading tags placed on supermarket shelves. The trial run will be conducted at Jusco supermarket (Yachiyo-midorigaoka branch) for a five-week period beginning February 6, in Yachiyo City, Chiba.

The trial run is part of the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry’s 2005 "Japan Future Store Project," featuring a series of trial demonstrations of electronic tag applications aimed at realizing retail services of the future. The store will be outfitted with 25 "shopping navi-carts" equipped with tag readers and data display terminals, and IC tags will be attached to approximately 500 selected food items.

Shoppers will be able to view a variety of information, ranging from product descriptions and instructions to video commercials, by holding the tag reader near the tags. The equipment will also assist shoppers in locating specific products within the store. When carts are moved to specified locations, promotional information and other data related to the relevant product category will be delivered to the data terminals.

Customers using the system will be asked to complete surveys after they finish shopping. Technical issues and other side effects, such as whether or not customers purchased more when using the carts, will also be studied.

Each company will play a specific role in the trial run. Aeon will run the experiment in the store, review the content, and link the trial system with the existing system. Fujitsu will handle project management, provide administrative support, configure the system, and provide the navi-cart data terminals and software. Dai-Nippon Printing will create content and provide programming support.

[Source: Nikkei BP]

AIST develops autonomous humanoid robot

24 Jan 2006

On January 23, the National Institute of Advanced Industrial Science and Technology (AIST) in Tsukuba, Ibaraki unveiled its HRP-2 humanoid robot equipped with a new system that enables autonomous self-directed operation. The robot demonstrated the ability to respond to spoken human commands by retrieving a can of juice from a refrigerator and bringing it to the person who requested it.

The robot’s head is equipped with improved cameras, which serve as eyes, and it incorporates a system that enables it to perceive its environment, remove any obstacles it encounters along the way, and self-correct its direction if it strays off course.

At the demonstration, a person seated at a table instructed a robot to bring him some juice. The robot communicated the command to a second robot, which then walked to the refrigerator, moving chairs out of the way as it proceeded. It opened the door of the refrigerator, retrieved a can of juice, and brought it back to the table. A third robot was responsible for mapping the room. Data was exchanged between the three robots via wireless LAN.

The institute would like to integrate these functions into a single robot to create a machine that can provide assistance in real-life situations.

[Source: Asahi Shimbun]

What is One Seg?

20 Jan 2006

We have witnessed our cellphones incorporate an increasing number of functions, everything from from cameras to music players to electronic payment functions. Now we are about to get what we truly want for our phones -- TV. One Seg, a type of TV broadcasting for cellphones, has been attracting a great deal of attention.

At present, there are several types of television broadcasting -- terrestrial analog broadcasting, which is the most widespread, terrestrial digital broadcasting, which has grown in popularity with the spread of flat-screen TVs, and BS and CS broadcasting, both of which transmit signals via satellite.

(Pictured here is the "au W33SA," the first One Seg compatible handset, released in December 2005. Until formal service begins, users will be able to watch One Seg trial broadcasting and analog TV broadcasts.)

In the future, terrestrial digital broadcasting is expected to become the mainstream. In terrestrial digital broadcasting, the frequency assigned to each channel is divided into 13 segments (bands) before it is broadcast. Of these 13 segments, 12 are actually used for broadcasting to households, and the remaining segment is used as a TV broadcast for mobile terminals. This explains the origin of the name "one-segment broadcasting," which has been abbreviated to "One Seg."

So, what is the difference between One Seg and conventional terrestrial analog broadcasting? We have seen a number of cellphones equipped with TV tuners in the past, all of them compatible with terrestrial analog broadcasting. However, the programs on these devices suffer from choppy picture quality. Reception also often becomes unstable when moving, and noise and static accompany most TV viewing. In contrast, One Seg is based on terrestrial digital broadcasting, and it is designed with the assumption that viewers will be on the move.

The inclusion of error correction technology ensures that users will be able to enjoy stable picture quality, even when moving from place to place.

Another difference relates to power consumption. Cellphones equipped with terrestrial analog TV tuners consume a lot of power, limiting continuous TV viewing to between 30 and 60 minutes. While watching TV, batteries become depleted, cutting off the ability to send/receive telephone calls and mail. However, One Seg broadcast tuners feature low power consumption, enabling several hours of continuous TV viewing on the cellphone. Sporting events can be watched in their entirety (provided there are no extra innings or overtime). One Seg also has the advantage of allowing access to other cellphone content linked to broadcasts.

One Seg programs will generally consist of content identical to terrestrial digital programs, but the possibility of offering programs unique to One Seg in the future is now being studied. The area of One Seg reception will coincide with the area covered by terrestrial digital broadcasting. However, the conditions in some areas (inside some buildings, underground, etc.) may limit reception.

The formal launch of One Seg service is now scheduled for April 1 of 2006. In December 2005, "au" released the first One Seg compatible handset, and NTT Docomo is expected to roll out One Seg compatible products this spring. In addition to cellphones, other types of One Seg compatible products, such as PCs, PDAs and portable game devices, are expected to hit the shelves.

The location-free style of watching TV on the move is expected to become very popular. Later this year, while you are out and about, don't be surprised if you bump into someone watching World Cup Soccer or baseball.

[Source: Asahi Shimbun]

Giant jellyfish wreak havoc on Japanese fishing

20 Jan 2006

Giant jellyfish (Echizen kurage) caused 101,540 cases of damage to fisheries between September and December 2005, including reduced catches and increased labor, according to research conducted by the Fisheries Agency. The results of the research were announced January 19 at a strategy meeting attended by officials from prefectural and city governments.

The research was conducted by local governments over the four month period. Cases of reported damage were broken down as follows: increased labor/time -- 34%, reduced catches -- 23%, reduced seafood prices due to lower quality and freshness -- 22%, interruption/suspension of fishing operations -- 4%, and physical damage such as torn nets -- 4%. Damage to trawl nets and fixed nets was significant for some types of fishing. October saw the most damage, with 37,087 cases reported.

The number of cases was determined based on each type of case that occurred per fishing vessel per day. Actual financial damages are difficult to calculate, so they remain unknown.

Fiscal year 2005 has seen the largest numbers of giant jellyfish in recent history, and the increased numbers have affected fishing in the Japan Sea, as well as in the Pacific Ocean and Sea of Okhostk. The overall numbers are now declining, but the jellyfish are still showing up in large areas of the Japan Sea and on the Sanriku Coast, where they are expected to be seen through February.

Giant jellyfish
Photo via National Geographic

[Source: Mainichi Shimbun]

Delicate robot hands demonstrated

11 Jan 2006

A consortium of Kyushu-area businesses, including robot developer TMSUK (Kitakyushu), has developed a compact robot hand. In Fukuoka on January 9, a robot equipped with the hands demonstrated its dexterity by scooping candy into bags.

Each hand features three fingers, 20 cm (approx. 8 inches) long when measured from the controller located in the palm to each fingertip, and each finger is equipped with three motors at its joints. Yasukawa Electric, which participated in developing the hand, boasts that it is the world’s smallest.

The dream of developing robots for domestic use or for electronic product assembly is growing. However, the production cost for a pair of hands is equivalent to that of a luxury automobile. Lower costs should open the door to a wide range of business opportunities.

[Source: Asahi Shimbun]

World’s largest jaguar relief unearthed

11 Jan 2006

A giant jaguar relief over 2.8 meters in height was unearthed from the remains of a temple at Huaca Partida in Northern Peru. The temple dates from about 750 BC.

Yoshida and the jaguar relief

The team of archaeologists that made the discovery is led by Koichiro Toshida, 33, an Andean archaeology research fellow with the Japan Society for the Promotion of Science. "This is the largest known relief from the ancient Andean civilization, whose ruins commonly feature depictions of animals," Toshida says. The discovery may come to be regarded as a key to unraveling the mysterious origins of Andean civilization.

The Huaca Partida ruins are located on the coast about 400 kilometers north of Lima, the capital of Peru. The temple where the relief was discovered stretches more than 25 meters from north to south, and is over 9 meters in height. The temple consists of a three-tiered platform, on top of which is a cloister and a courtyard adorned with eight columns. Two jaguar reliefs were discovered on the south face of the uppermost platform, and the one on the west side was extremely well preserved. The jaguar relief features a head 1.6 meters in height and a maximum engraving depth of approximately 50 centimeters.

The ancient civilizations of Central and South America revered the jaguar as a symbol of royalty and supernatural power. The jaguar motif of this discovery is consistent with other mythological depictions.

According to Yoshio Onuki, Tokyo University professor emeritus and expert in ancient Andean civilization, "The discovery of a temple in a coastal area that features this degree of embellishment is highly unusual. This discovery calls for a review of the relationship between ruins in mountainous areas and ruins in coastal areas, and will help in understanding how ancient Andean civilization originated."

[Source: Yomiuri Shimbun]

Toshiba develops cellphone barcode reader software for online search of product reviews

08 Jan 2006

Toshiba has developed software that allows users to easily check online reviews of a product by reading its barcode with a camera-equipped cellphone. The software will be put to trial use in February at locations such as electronics stores and bookstores, and will become commercially available sometime in 2006.

The software is designed for products that purchasers tend to read reviews for, such as electronic goods, food, books, CDs, DVDs, makeup, etc. Users will be able to access information for approximately 400,000 products.

When a barcode is read using a cellphone camera, the data is automatically sent to a dedicated server, where data from blogs that refer to that product is searched. After about 10 seconds, the number of "positive" and "negative" blog hits is displayed on the cellphone screen. In addition, blog text related to the product is displayed, as well as information about related products.

Toshiba developed an original database that arranges approximately 500,000 Japanese keywords into categories such as "travel" or "culture," and groups them according to the review ratings. The company claims this technique enables quick analysis of blog content.

[Source: Asahi Shimbun]

Canon delays release of next-generation TV until summer

06 Jan 2006

On January 5, Fujio Mitarai, President and CEO of Canon, announced that its next-generation SED (surface-conduction electron-emitter display) flat-screen TVs will not be released until early summer, several months later than originally scheduled. The 55-inch model will initially be sold in Japan, and full-scale mass production is expected to begin in 2007.

Canon will make its debut in the TV market with this product. SED technology, which Canon developed with Toshiba, provides high resolution and low power consumption. Much attention will be focused on the market share that SED is able to garner in the highly competitive flat-screen TV market, which is dominated by LCD and plasma. Toshiba will release its SED TV early this year, as planned.

[Source: Asahi Shimbun]