Archives: February 2006

RI-MAN, the soft-skinned robot

28 Feb 2006

RI-MAN, an autonomous lifestyle-support robot developed at RIKEN's Bio-Mimetic Control Research Center (Nagoya, Japan), now has soft skin. If put to work in care facilities, RI-MAN's soft arms and chest will enable it to perform delicate work that present-day robots are not allowed to do, such as lifting patients up into its arms.

RI-MAN, the soft-skinned robot

The robot, which is 158 cm (5 ft 2 in) tall and weighs about 100 kg (220 lbs), consists of a humanoid upper body that sits atop a wheeled base. A 5-mm layer of silicone covers most of the upper body, including the face and chest. The skin sinks in slightly when pressed, giving it a resilient, supple feeling. Under the layer of silicone are 320 pressure sensors that enable RI-MAN to self-adjust the softness as needed.

Research team leader Zhiwei Luo says, "We may see commercial applications of this technology in as early as five years."

UPDATE: Read RI-MAN revisited for more details.

[Source: Asahi Shimbun]

Electrical Fantasista: Hip technology you can feel

27 Feb 2006

Cutting-edge technology meets art at Electrical Fantasista, an exhibit and series of events held at BankART Studio NYK in Yokohama (Feb 24 – Mar 14). The exhibit is divided into four zones that explore the future of modern lifestyle.

ZONE 1: Positive Living
Artists and scientists from Japan have created robots and machines that rely on IT to bring comfort to people. The works in this zone fuse art with the latest in technology to evoke true delight, providing a glimpse into the future of relaxation.

ZONE 1 works
- Tabby: Communicative healing IT interior that reacts to voice and touch
- PARO: Interactive seal robot with therapeutic powers recognized by the Guinness Book of World Records
- Co-animation table: Table that anyone can enjoy to create animation
- Mutant Critter: "Skins" that transform things into furry creatures
- Mr. Jones Watches: Series of retro-futuristic watches with a variety of unique functions
- Katazukue: Tidy table that forces slobs to clean up

PARO
PARO, the healing seal robot

ZONE 2: Game Is Life
The "games" in Zone 2 are the stuff that fuels the development of games. But beware, these works of art from Germany and Japan venture dangerously into realms ordinary games only dream to go, which explains why gamers and developers from across the globe are dying to try them out.

ZONE 2 works
- PainStation: Arcade game that exposes the loser to electric heat/shock and lashings
(Note: Due to the possibility of physical harm, play is limited to those who agree to bear full responsibility for any injury incurred.)
- Through the looking glass: Air hockey game that pits you against your mirror image
- MisLeading MisReading: Artificial intelligence message game that uses advanced speech recognition and machine translation technology to translate your spoken words

PainStation
PainStation

ZONE 3: Electrical Lounge

MorphoTowerZone 3 explores new types of experience in optics. Relying on the latest in optic technology, such as LED and sensors, the works in this zone go beyond the flashing of lights to magically stimulate all the senses. Here, visitors experience new forms of comfort and stimulation.

ZONE 3 works
- Kaze-no-michi: Light sculpture that transforms the beauty of wind into light that illuminates the floor
- MorphoTower: Living sculpture of magnetic fluid that continuously morphs into magical shapes
- Fuwa Pica: Sofas that change color when you sit -- soft on the eyes, soft to the touch

ZONE 4: Flash Fantasista
Zone 4 features a selection of interactive art chosen the curators. See http://www.shift.jp.org for details.

(Map to BankART Studio NYK)

[Source: Creative Cluster]

Zoos grapple with winter blues

25 Feb 2006

As Japan’s harsh winter takes its toll on zoo animals by causing problems from chapped feet to appetite loss, zookeepers do what they can to deal with the cold weather.

At Tama Zoo (Hino, Tokyo), where the temperature is about 3 degrees Celsius (5 degrees Fahrenheit) lower than central Tokyo, zookeepers keep the Bornean orangutans indoors when it is cold. The popular skywalk, built last April to provide a means for the orangutans to exercise their rope-walking skills, remains unused because the orangutans have been unwilling to venture outside since last November. Zoo officials shut down the skywalk in December because the baby orangutans, who usually cross the ropes with vigor, developed chapped feet.

Orangutan at Tama Zoo
Orangutan at Tama Zoo on a warm day

Even the elephants and rhinos, considered relatively resistant to cold weather with their thick skins, have had to move to heated indoor enclosures earlier and more often than usual.

At Ueno Zoo (Taito ward, Tokyo), zookeepers often bring the giraffes and elephants indoors early. “Prolonged exposure to cold temperatures weakens the physical condition of the animals, so we do what we can to keep them healthy,” says one zookeeper.

At Higashiyama Zoo in Nagoya, a flamingo suffered a leg injury caused by a piece of broken ice in the freezing pond.

At the Japanese Monkey Center (Inuyama, Aichi prefecture), zookeepers apply ointment to the frostbitten feet of South African long-haired spider monkeys. Other monkeys in the zoo hospital are suffering from colds and appetite loss.

It has been a tough winter for us all.

[Source: Asahi Shimbun]

Exotic chocolate exhibit at Yokohama Curry Museum

23 Feb 2006

An unusual chocolate exhibit at the Yokohama Curry Museum may provide the perfect opportunity for gag gift shopping, whether it’s for your despicable boss or for yourself. The exhibit features a selection of around 70 varieties of novelty chocolate, alcoholic chocolate, fruit chocolate, and joke chocolate, all of which are available for purchase. The exhibition will be held until March 31 in the Masaraya museum shop on the 7th floor of the museum.

Some of the featured items include:

- Curry chocolate: Amazing, award-winning chocolate
- Wasabi chocolate: White chocolate with wasabi mustard
- Dried kelp chocolate: Chocolate with powdered gagome dried kelp from Hokkaido
- Hokkaido salt chocolate: White chocolate spiced with salt from the Sea of Okhotsk
- Korean red chili pepper chocolate: Chocolate with red chili pepper extract


(Curry chocolate, wasabi mustard chocolate and gagome dried kelp chocolate)


(Chocolate Factory Series: Car Mania Set, squid chocolate and Sapporo Beer chocolate)

The curry chocolate, a Yokohama Curry Museum original, has sold particularly well -- 25,000 packages in January. “At first it seems like regular chocolate," says museum official Takehisa Inoue, "but its subtle spicy aftertaste gives it an exquisite flavor.” Created with the cooperation of confectionery manufacturer Meiji Seika, the curry chocolate is made with a blend of various spices.

In conjunction with the exhibit, the Petit Vert cafe on the 8th floor is serving fruitcake that looks just like a plate of curry (1,200 yen) until March 31. Created by Nobuyuki Yamamoto, former head pastry chef at Hotel New Grand (Yokohama), this dessert is a museum original with local roots. The "rice" is made from chocolate and sponge cake, and the "curry roux" consists of a mixture of turmeric and orange juice.

[Source: MYCOM PC WEB]

Toshiba to postpone SED TV release until next year?

22 Feb 2006

On February 21, Toshiba announced the possibility of postponing the spring 2006 release date for its next-generation flat-screen SED (Surface-conduction Electron-emission Display) TV until next year. Toshiba has worked with Canon to develop SED TV technology.

SED TV

At a press conference on February 21, Satoshi Niikura, vice president of Toshiba’s digital media operations, said, "Because SED is still in the trial production stage, we are unable to secure a sufficient quantity of panels (key components)." The company will soon make a final decision regarding its strategy.

SED panels are currently being manufactured on a trial basis at a joint-venture factory in the city of Hiratsuka in Kanagawa prefecture at a rate of about 1000 units per month. Full-scale production is not expected until 2007.

[Source: Asahi Shimbun]

Combustible ice found off Niigata coast

21 Feb 2006

Methane hydrate: combustible iceOutcrops of combustible ice, or methane hydrate (also known as methane ice or methane clathrate), which many view as a potential source of fuel in the future, have been discovered on the ocean floor near the coastal city of Joetsu in Niigata prefecture. According to a statement made by scientists on February 20, the methane hydrate appears to be the exposed tips of ice columns that extend about 100 meters (325 feet) beneath the ocean floor.

The recent discovery marks the first time that exposed methane hydrate deposits have been found in Japanese waters. Methane hydrate, which is normally found several hundred meters beneath the ocean floor, is a sherbert-like substance that burns when exposed to flame. It forms when low temperature and high pressure under the ocean floor causes methane molecules to become trapped inside frozen water molecules.

Scientists from the University of Tokyo, the Japan Agency for Marine-Earth Science and Technology (JAMSTEC), and the National Institute of Advanced Industrial Science and Technology (AIST) are working together to collect samples from two points located at depths of 800 to 1000 meters (2600 to 3300 feet), about 30 kilometers (19 miles) offshore. They are using unmanned submarines to collect the ice. Based on the high electrical conductivity of the ground beneath the ocean floor, the scientists suspect the existence of large underground columns of methane hydrate.

While methane hydrate is being hailed as a potential source of fuel in the future, methane is a greenhouse gas. Methane is generated when organic matter in deep layers of sedimentary rock breaks down due to heating. The methane moves into upper layers, where it accumulates and forms methane hydrate. As the temperature rises and pressure falls, methane hydrate dissociates into methane and water. The resulting methane concentration in the surrounding seawater ranges from dozens to thousands of times higher than normal.

The research group is also committed to exploring the impact that the use of methane hydrate will have on global warming.

[Source: Asahi Shimbun]

Absolut Icebar opens in Tokyo

17 Feb 2006

On February 17, Swedish brand Absolut Vodka, in cooperation with ICEHOTEL and Carrozzeria Japan (Chuo ward, Tokyo), opened the Absolut Icebar Tokyo near Gaien Nishi Dori (Nishi-Azabu 4-chome, Tel: 03-5464-2161). Everything in the icebar -- from the walls and bar counter down to the drinking glasses -- is made from ice, which is transported to Japan from the Torne River in northern Sweden. The ice is reportedly the purest in the world.

Absolut Icebar Tokyo

Absolut Icebar Tokyo is the first of its kind in Asia. Other branches of the bar are located in Stockholm, London, and Milan. Consistent in design with the European versions, the temperature inside the bar is -5 degrees Celsius (23 degrees Fahrenheit), and the entranceway is equipped with an airlock to keep the cold air inside. Specially designed thermal capes and gloves are provided to customers.

The bar serves up a variety of original, Absolut Vodka-based cocktails. The price for one drink, which includes the entrance fee and use of a thermal cape and gloves, is 3,500 yen. Refills are priced at 1,200 yen (cocktails) and 1,000 yen (soft drinks), and a fresh ice glass costs 800 yen. With 75 square meters (800 square feet) of floor space, there is enough room for only one seated table and up to 50 people. Hours are from 5 PM to 12 midnight.

The original Absolut Icebar was established at the ICEHOTEL, the world’s first hotel made from ice, located in Jukkasjarvi, northern Sweden.

[Source: Roppongi Keizai Shimbun]

JAXA exhibits 3D satellite images of Mt. Fuji

16 Feb 2006

Mt. Fuji from space

On February 15, the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) exhibited the first photographic images captured by the Daichi advanced land observing satellite launched in January. Daichi is equipped with the three types of sensors, including the world’s first Panchromatic Remote-sensing Instrument of Stereo Mapping (PRISM), which simultaneously captures images from three directions to create 3D images of the Earth's surface.

The PRISM images, taken on the morning of the February 14, show the area around Mt. Fuji and Shimizu Port in Shizuoka Prefecture. Objects as small as 2.5 meters (8.2 feet) across are visible.

Daichi’s 3D images of the area around Mt. Fuji show Kofu City’s urban sprawl, the Fuji Five Lakes (Fujigoko), and the detailed terrain of the snow-capped peak of Mt. Fuji. Small buildings and roads are visible in the images, which were taken from an altitude of 700 kilometers (435 miles).

Daichi uses PRISM to create maps on the scale of 1:25,000. The satellite is expected to play a key role in disaster relief by quickly gathering image data of areas hit by large-scale disasters.

[Source: Mainichi Shimbun via Yahoo! News Japan]

UPDATE: Check out the 3D video compiled from the images (MPEG: 3.6M)

Frozen waterfall indicates bumper rice crop to come

13 Feb 2006

Frozen Taroshi Falls In a tradition that stretches back 700 years, local farmers in Hanamaki, Iwate prefecture measure the circumference of the frozen waterfall at Taroshi Falls to predict the yield of the year's rice crop.

According to the conservation group that has kept track of the measurements since 1975, the largest measurement on record is 8 meters, taken in 1978. Warm winters in recent years have caused the ice to break apart, sometimes making it impossible to get an accurate measurement. This year, however, the frozen waterfall measures in at a respectable 5.5 meters, surpassing the 4-meter mark that indicates a plentiful harvest.

Hiroshi Itagaki, 74, head of the conservation group, says, "With all the depressing news about this year's heavy snow, I hope this can serve as a message of hope for the country." The conservation group's mantra is a haiku which translates: "So magnficent -- this icicle before us -- bulging with promise."

[Source: Asahi Shimbun]