Archives: September 2006

Space yogurt

29 Sep 2006

Himawari Space Yogurt -- Earlier this month, Himawari Dairy began selling space yogurt, which is made using two types of lactic acid bacteria that spent 10 days in space aboard a Russian Soyuz rocket last spring. The yogurt, called Uchu O Tabi Shita Yogurt (literally: "yogurt that travelled in space"), is now available in Shikoku's four prefectures. The space yogurt follows Tosa Space Sake, which hit shelves last spring, as the second space-related product created to stimulate business in Kochi prefecture.

Himawari Dairy worked with the Japan Manned Space Systems Corporation (JAMSS) to organize the space trip for the bacteria. The payload included lactic acid bacteria used in ordinary yogurt, as well as a unique strain of Lactobacillus paracasei cultured from pickles preserved in sake lees (sediment that occurs during sake brewing). In previous joint research conducted with Hokkaido University, Himawari found that Lactobacillus paracasei works to enhance the body's immunity to disease. The space yogurt was made using these two types of bacteria mixed with a third type of bacteria.

According to Himawari Dairy President Bunjiro Yoshizawa, about half of the bacteria died in the agar medium due to the harsh environment inside the rocket. The strong, surviving bacteria gives the space yogurt a more full-bodied flavor compared to yogurt made with standard earthbound bacteria.

The space yogurt is priced at 128 yen (a little more than US$1.00) for 90 grams of the pre-sweetened type and 238 yen (about US$2.00) for 400 grams of the plain type. A space yogurt drink is also available in 90 and 500 gram containers.

[Source: Nikkei Net]

Building glows blue with cosmic radiation

27 Sep 2006

M-INT Kobe -- M-INT Kobe, a commercial complex scheduled to open in Kobe on October 4, has been outfitted with an exterior lighting system that translates cosmic energy waves into pulsating blue light. The system is the first of its kind to be installed on a building in Japan.

Called "Super Nova," the lighting system consists of 2,880 blue LEDs arranged in two columns spanning the height of the 18-story building's west wall. The embedded lights are activated by sensors that detect cosmic rays. According to Takuro Osaka, the University of Tsukuba Graduate School professor who designed the system, the brightness of the blue lights fluctuates according to the intensity of the detected cosmic rays, giving the building an ever-changing magical glow.

Takuro Osaka has been exploring the use of cosmic radiation in art since 1995, and for years he has been discussing the possibility of collaborating with Japan's space agency (JAXA, formerly NASDA) on art projects in outer space. Check out Takuro Osaka's homepage for details about his previous spaced-out projects.

[Sources: Kobe Shimbun, Kobe Topics]

Pre-quake alarm gives 20 seconds to duck and cover

26 Sep 2006

NTT's earthquake alarm system --

NTT is developing a device that provides advance warning of earthquakes seconds before they strike by relying on data from a nationwide system of seismometers put in place by the Japan Meteorological Agency. The sensors detect an earthquake's primary waves ("P-waves"), which travel more quickly and are much weaker than the lower-velocity secondary waves ("S-waves") that cause the major damage associated with earthquakes.

When the sensors detect P-waves, data about the timing and strength of the coming S-waves is instantly delivered to the earthquake alarms via NTT's fiber optic network, notifying the users in their homes before the S-waves strike. The time difference between the arrival of P-waves and S-waves depends on the distance from the epicenter, so locations farther from the epicenter can receive warnings much more in advance than those near the epicenter. Unfortunately, people located directly above the epicenter, where the earthquake is at its strongest, are unlikely to receive any advance warning at all.

The TV commercial for the device (as well as the extended web version, now on YouTube) shows a mildly touching dramatization of the device at work.

The commercial focuses on a female college student who is majoring in home economics and living at home with her parents. When home alone, the girl spends most of her free time in the kitchen honing her cooking skills by preparing dishes like goya kinoko champuru, an Okinawan stir-fry made with bitter gourd, mushroom and eggs. The kitchen is equipped with an NTT earthquake alarm.

The first time the earthquake alarm sounds, the girl goes into a mild panic, squandering her 20-second warning by wondering where to set the dish she is holding. She finally crawls under the dining table and all is well.

The next time an earthquake comes, she is prepared. The alarm sounds and the mechanical voice informs her that a magnitude 3 earthquake will strike in 20 seconds. As the countdown begins, she calmly turns off the stove, opens the patio doors, and crawls under the table. The voice instructs her to protect herself from physical harm until the shaking stops, advising her not to run outside in a panic. The voice then instructs her to make sure the gas is turned off and evacuate to a safe place once the quake has passed. Finally, the voice instructs her to pay attention to the information provided by the mass media and the local authorities, again reminding her to remain calm.

Later, the girl's mother calls to check on her. Having cooked a great deal of food, the girl tells her mother to come home hungry. Later they will feast.

Luckily for all, the earthquake was only a magnitude 3 affair, unlike the monster that struck Kobe back in 1995.

I have fortunately never seen the need to duck and cover during an earthquake and I don't know how well I would fit under my dining table, but nonetheless it would be nice to have a 20-second warning before the Big One hits.

[Further reading: Asahi Shimbun (English)]

Robot cats seeking new homes

25 Sep 2006

Yume-Neko Smile --

Stacks of boxed feline robots manufactured by Sega Toys, called Yume-Neko Smile ("Dream Cat Smile"), await their fate on the shelves of Tokyo toy shops. While the cats bide their time staring listlessly through the clear plastic windows of their temporary dwellings, Sega Toys steps up its efforts to find homes for them with a new TV commercial.

According to the Yume-Neko Smile homepage, the cuddly robot makes a suitable alternative for anyone unable to keep a real cat. Five sensors at different locations on Yume-Neko's body allow you and the cat to engage in tactile communication. Pet Yume-Neko Smile on the head and it starts purring and flicking its tail around. Stroke its back and it starts to get sleepy. Yume-Neko also likes it when you touch its cheek, and it apparently enjoys being flipped over on its back to have its chest stroked. The cat gets mad when you touch its tail, though, so be careful!

[Link: Yume-Neko Smile homepage]

(See also -- Video: Yume-Neko Smile, Part II)

Monsters gather in Tokyo, get X-rayed

22 Sep 2006

Monsters invade Tokyo --

This October, Japan's National Science Museum (Ueno, Tokyo) will host an exhibit of monster-related cultural artifacts, including the mummies of a mermaid and tengu (long-nosed goblin), as well as a selection of items documenting other traditional Japanese monsters like the kappa.

Scheduled to run from October 17 to November 12, the exhibit will feature about 100 historical items concerning legendary beasts and apparitions (yokai) from the Edo period to the present day. The exhibit is organized by the National Science Museum and the Ikimono Bunkashi Gakkai, whose members include Imperial Prince Akishinomiya.

On September 19, experts armed with state-of-the-art equipment began taking X-rays of the mummified tengu and mermaid, which belong to the Hachinohe City Museum in Aomori prefecture. The specimens, both of which are about 30 centimeters long, are commonly believed to be artistic creations made sometime during the first half of the 19th century. The tengu is believed to be an elaborate sculpture whose materials include paper, the head of a monkey and the body of a bird. The mermaid, also regarded as a sculptural work, is believed to consist of a wooden upper body attached to the tail of an actual fish.

The exhibit will feature the X-rays of both creatures.

[Source: Kyodo via Weekly Teinou Bee Woman]

Intelligent wheelchair sees all

21 Sep 2006

SOS: Stereo Omnidirectional System --

On September 20, Japan's National Institute of Advanced Industrial Science and Technology (AIST) unveiled an intelligent wheelchair that relies on an omnidirectional camera for a view of its surroundings, avoids collisions with people and obstacles, and knows when something is wrong with the chair's occupant. Developed with the cooperation of the National Rehabilitation Center for Persons with Disabilities, the new technology is expected to improve the safety and security of electric wheelchairs for the disabled and elderly.

While the increased prevalence of electric wheelchairs has improved the mobility of persons with serious disabilities, they have also resulted in an increased number of collisions and accidents. To boost wheelchair safety, AIST engineers incorporated elements of intelligent automotive systems, which are capable of calculating the risk of collisions before they happen and automatically applying the brakes when necessary.

The prototype wheelchair is equipped with a camera system -- interestingly dubbed Stereo Omnidirectional System (SOS) -- whose 360-degree field of vision has no blind spot. Relying on the camera images, the chair detects potential hazards that arise while in motion and decelerates or stops accordingly. The chair also checks the occupant for signs of abnormality (unusual posture) and is equipped with a function that allows the occupant to control the chair by gesturing (pointing). Check out the AIST press release for videos of the chair in action.

The wheelchair is currently equipped with a function for transmitting the camera's color video via wireless LAN, and AIST is investigating the possibility of enabling the video to be delivered via cellular phone and providing support for remote-control functions. AIST will soon subject the prototype to rigorous testing and continue upgrading the functions.

This intelligent wheelchair technology will be demonstrated at the 2006 Home Care and Rehabilitation Exhibition scheduled for September 27 to 29 in Tokyo.

[Sources: MYCOM Journal and AIST press release]

Video: Master pen-twirlers of Japan

20 Sep 2006

As industrialized nations evolve into efficient paperless societies, their citizens spend ever-decreasing amounts of time with pen in hand. An unfortunate side effect of this trend is the gradual disappearance of the refined art of pen-twirling. The future of this art form is now lies precariously in the hands of our youth, whose daily school routines still afford them ample opportunity to grapple with these writing instruments. I invite you to let go of your mouse for a moment and feast your eyes on this video treat produced by a small band of master pen-twirlers from Japan.

Robot beauty goes skin-deep

19 Sep 2006

Honey Doll --

In a move that could provide a crucial boost to our robotic friends struggling up the near side of the Uncanny Valley, major cosmetics manufacturer Kao Corporation and a Keio University research team led by robotics professor Takashi Maeno have developed an artificial skin that feels just like human skin.

Skin, the largest organ of the human body, consists of a soft layer of tissue (dermis) covered by a tougher protective layer (epidermis). The artificial skin developed by Kao and Keio mimics the feel of human skin with a 1-cm thick "dermis" of elastic silicone covered by a 0.2-mm thick "epidermis" of firm urethane. Countless tiny hexagonal indentations etched into the urethane epidermis provide it with a very realistic texture.

In a series of unscientific tests, 10 out of 12 people who touched the skin thought it felt like human skin, while equipment designed to measure the mechanical properties of skin confirmed the artificial skin had characteristics resembling human skin.

The skin was unveiled earlier this month at the 24th Annual Conference of the Robotics Society of Japan (RSJ) at Okayama University. While Kao plans to use the artificial skin in the development of new cosmetics, Professor Maeno sees potential applications in the field of household robotics, where there are many opportunities for human-robot interaction.

[Source: Yomiuri Shimbun]

Video of crazy Kodak moments from Japan

16 Sep 2006

Here's a downright hilarious (either that, or I've been in Japan too long!) video slideshow of crazy photos, mostly from Japan. The soundtrack is Kotoba Ni Dekinai (meaning "speechless") by Off Course (Kazumasa Oda, the vocalist, is a famous Japanese singer-songwriter who's been around since the late 60s).

For a few of these photos, the humor lies in the language. Here is an explanation of some the Japanese, just in case.

- Sign on fish truck: I am a fish -- Yesterday I was in the ocean -- Today I am fish sausage
- Expert crime analyst on TV: The perpetrator was in his 20s or 30s, or in his 40s or 50s
- Mispellings: Hitsumabushi (grilled eel on rice) misspelled as himatsubushi (killing/wasting time)
- Misspelled label: Chicken cutlet with nurse (nasu = eggplant, naasu = nurse)
- Food package labeled as "store manager" (tencho)
- Instant yakisoba in sink (presumably dropped while trying to drain the hot water through the little drain holes in the lid -- not an uncommon occurrence)
- Doraemon statue surrounded by signs warning against the presence of sexual deviants and molesters
- Windows Task Manager showing each family member's IE Explorer status -- grandpa is the only one having technical problems
- TV broadcast freezes on woman in mid-blink. Message at top of screen advises viewers to stand by while the station resolves the technical difficulties
- Train station sign: Japan has ended (the kanji for nihon (Japan) should be reversed to say honjitsu (today), so the sign should instead read "[train service has] ended for the day")

[Via: Zaeega]