Archives: August 2007

TPR-Robina: Toyota’s guide robot

22 Aug 2007

TPR-Robina, Toyota tour guide robot --- Toyota's new guide robot, formerly known as 'DJ Robot', has officially been named TPR-Robina, according to an August 22 Toyota press release.

Photos reveal a slightly more professional look (no more scowling eyes) to go along with the droid's improved ability to avoid obstacles and operate autonomously, while agile, jointed fingers enable TPR-Robina to grasp writing utensils and sign autographs. Further, in addition to being able to communicate using words and gestures, the 60-kg, 1.2-meter tall robot has an image recognition system that allows it to read visitors' name tags so that it can tailor its directions accordingly.

TPR-Robina will begin working as a receptionist and guide at the Toyota Kaikan Exhibition Hall on August 27.

[Source: Toyota press release via Carview]

Video: Frog spits up stomach

21 Aug 2007

Frog ejects own stomach --

This video clip from Trivia no Izumi shows how frogs cope with severe indigestion. After a disagreeable meal, a frog can empty its stomach by ejecting the entire organ inside-out through its mouth and washing it with its front legs before swallowing it back down.

The host of the show explains that a frog throws up in much the same way that humans do, but its stomach pops out because of its relatively wide and soft esophagus. Incidentally, some people believe frogs are right-handed because the ejected stomach protrudes to the right and they mainly use their right front leg to wash it.

Bots play the fool at Baka RoboCup 2007

17 Aug 2007

Baca Robo -- While competitions like ROBO-ONE and RoboCup give athletic robots the opportunity to show off their fighting and soccer skills, there are no major competitions that celebrate the robot's ability to make people laugh -- until now, that is. Baka RoboCup (baka means "foolish" or "stupid" in Japanese), a competition organized by entertainment giant Yoshimoto Kogyo, which is arguably Japan's most influential comedy production company, will pit humorous robots against each other in a comedy throw-down this November. Organizers hope the contest will inspire roboticists to devote serious attention to the art of creating impractical (but entertaining) machines.

After the October 5 application deadline, the producers will select the 8 most farcical robots and invite them to perform November 4 at Lumine the Yoshimoto in Shinjuku (Tokyo). There, each robot will have 2 minutes to entertain the audience and judges, who will include Nobumichi Tosa (president of nonsense instrument manufacturer Maywa Denki), manga artist Kotobuki Shiriagari, movie director Shinji Higuchi, and University of Electro-Communications professor Masahiko Inami. The 500,000 yen ($4,200) Grand Prize will be presented to the robot who draws the biggest laughs.

To qualify for the competition, aspiring baka-robo must satisfy 3 conditions: (1) they must be mechanical in nature (i.e. they must have moving parts), (2) they must serve no useful purpose (i.e. they must be as impractical and worthless as possible), and (3) they must make people laugh (with entertaining action, amusing features, systems that surprise or shock the audience, etc.). The robots also must be shorter than 240 cm (7 ft 10 in) and weigh less than 100 kg (220 lbs), and they are not allowed to use explosives or emit sparks or liquid.

The Baka RoboCup organization does not seem to have any clearly stated long-term objectives like their soccer-oriented RoboCup counterparts -- who aim to produce a team of robots capable of outperforming a team of world champion human players by the year 2050. However, a statement by Nobumichi Tosa on the BacaRobo website suggests one goal is to challenge the notion that robots must be regarded as serious machines that serve a practical purpose. That said, the serious pursuit of creating "frivolous" machines might play a useful role in the development of artificial intelligence, innovative mechanical features or social satire, suggests Tosa.

[Source: BakaRoboCup 2007 Official Site]

Mutant golden frogs a sign of good luck?

16 Aug 2007

Gold frogs --

Four mutant frogs with gold skin and red eyes, found by children in a grassy field in the town of Shimanto in Kochi prefecture, have gone on display at the nearby Shimanto River Gakuyukan science center. According to a center spokesperson who says the golden specimens are highly unusual, the 2.4-centimeter (almost 1-inch) amphibians appear to be black-spotted pond frogs (Pelophylax nigromaculata, a.k.a. Rana nigromaculata) whose skin turned gold because of an albino mutation that prevents the formation of pigment cells. With a run of bad luck that has brought shrinking visitor numbers and a recent theft of 1.25 million yen (about $10,000), the center hopes the golden frogs are a sign of good fortune to come. Oddly, they look sort of like feng shui money frogs (Chan Chu), except that money frogs have three legs.

[Source: Asahi]

Toyota ‘DJ Robot’ quits band, becomes receptionist

14 Aug 2007

DJ Robo, Toyota's guide robot -- Toyota's "DJ Robot," a two-wheeled android belonging to a band of robot musicians that entertained visitors at the 2005 Aichi World Expo, has ditched its entertainment career for a job as a receptionist. DJ Robot's departure from the band comes as Toyota gears up for its debut of a new robot violinist this autumn.

The highlight of DJ Robot's entertainment career came at the 2005 Aichi World Expo, where it performed with Toyota's other musically-inclined Partner Robots -- a show-stopping bipedal android trumpet player and an ensemble of wheeled bots playing tuba, trombone, French horn and percussion. Unlike the other band members with their human-like artificial lips and dexterous hands that enable them to play brass instruments, DJ Robot has no special abilities other than the ability to rap, a skill that earned it a role as the group's MC. (Despite what the name "DJ" might imply, the robot has no turntable skills.)

Since the Expo, the 1-meter tall DJ Robot, which rolls around on a pair of Segway-like wheels, has been working to improve its ability to interact and communicate with humans. As a receptionist, the machine will use these skills to provide information, answer questions and show visitors around offices and exhibitions. DJ Robot's first gig will come at the end of August when it goes to work alongside human receptionists at the Toyota Kaikan Exhibition Hall at company headquarters in Toyota City, which sees more than 400,000 visitors per year.

In January 2008, the droid will begin working at Toyota's Nagoya office on the 24th floor of Midland Square, an office and shopping complex at Nagoya station, while additional versions of the robot will be rolled out at other company facilities at later dates. Toyota has yet to announce whether DJ Robot will be changing its name to better suit its new role as receptionist.

With its move into the robo-receptionist industry, DJ Robot clearly follows in the footsteps (and wheel tracks) of Honda's Asimo and Mitsubishi's Wakamaru, both of which have tasted some degree of success. While DJ Robot lags behind the competition in terms of experience, Toyota is confident its control technology will enable the bot to respond quickly and operate smoothly in its new environment. For now, Toyota plans to keep the robot employed at its own facilities, and there are no plans to put any models up for sale or rent.

Interestingly, DJ Robot's departure from the entertainment world comes as Toyota prepares to debut a new android that can walk around and play violin like a human.

Toyota worked long and hard to develop robot hands capable of playing the violin. In particular, the robot's left hand requires precise fingers that can press the strings properly, while the right hand needs to constantly adjust the amount of force used when holding and drawing the bow across the strings. According to Toyota, the advanced technology at work in these hands could eventually be put to use in humanoid robots that provide nursing care. In other words, whenever this robo-violinist retires, we can probably expect to see it get a job at a hospital.

The violinist will hook up with Toyota's other droid musicians to form a "robot orchestra," which is scheduled to hold its debut performance this autumn as part of Toyota's 70th anniversary celebration.

[Source: Chunichi, Asahi]

Artificial bones made with 3D inkjet printers

13 Aug 2007

Custom artificial bone made on 3D inkjet printer -- Researchers from the Tissue Engineering Department at the University of Tokyo Hospital and venture company Next 21 are using 3D inkjet printers to produce tailor-made artificial bones for use in facial reconstructive surgery. Following initial trials performed on a Welsh corgi and 10 people over the past year and a half, the researchers are set to begin a more extensive second round of human testing this autumn.

To make an artificial bone with this technology, a 3D computer model of the bone is first created based on the patient's X-ray and CT scan data. The computer model is then sliced into a large number of cross-sections and the data is sent to a special 3D inkjet printer, which works sort of like an ordinary inkjet printer by transferring tiny droplets of liquid onto a surface. However, unlike ordinary printers that print on paper, this one prints onto thin layers of powdered alpha-tricalcium phosphate (alpha-TCP). The "ink" is a water-based polymer adhesive that hardens the alpha-TCP it comes into contact with. By repeatedly laying down the powder and printing successive layers on top of one another, the printer is able to physically reproduce the desired bone to an accuracy of one millimeter.

Strong, lightweight and porous, the printed bones have characteristics similar to natural bone, and because they are tailored to fit exactly where they need to go, they are quick to integrate with the surrounding bone. The printed bone is also designed to be resorbed by the body as the surrounding bone slowly grows into it and replaces it.

In initial human trials conducted between March 2006 and July 2007, the effectiveness and safety of the artificial bones were tested in plastic surgery operations performed on 10 male and female patients between the ages of 18 and 54. In the second round of trials beginning this autumn at 10 medical institutions across Japan, the researchers plan to print up and implant synthetic bones in 70 volunteer patients with face or skull bones that have been damaged or removed due to injury or surgery.

While the printed bones are still not considered strong enough to replace weight-bearing bones, they are ten times stronger than conventional artificial bones made from hydroxylapatite, a naturally occurring mineral that is also the main component of natural bone. The printed bones are also cheaper and easier to make than hydroxylapatite implants, which must be sintered, or heated to a high temperature to get the particles to adhere to each other. In addition to taking longer to produce, sintered implants also take longer for the body to resorb.

The next round of human trials will be conducted at Dokkyo Medical University, Saitama Medical University, Tokyo Dental College, University of Tokyo, Juntendo University, Tsurumi University, Kyoto University, Osaka Medical College, Kobe University and Osaka City General Medical Center.

The researchers hope to make the technology commercially available by 2010.

[Source: Fuji Sankei, The Chemical Daily]

Giant mechanical Onyudo doll

10 Aug 2007

Oonyuudou, Japan's largest mechanical doll --

Each August in the city of Yokkaichi in Mie prefecture, a giant mechanical effigy of Onyudo, a legendary Japanese monster, is paraded through the streets during the Grand Yokkaichi Festival. The mechanized puppet, said to be the largest karakuri ningyo in Japan, stands between 6.3 and 9 meters (20 to 30 feet) tall depending on how far its neck is extended. The giant Onyudo wows spectators by swinging its arms, bobbing its head around on its long neck, moving its eyes and mouth, and sticking out its tongue as it is wheeled through the streets to the accompaniment of taiko drums.

Here's a short video.

Onyudo, whose name literally means "large monk," appears in a number of folk tales across Japan. While his physical appearance and characteristics vary from story to story, he is always large, ranging anywhere from 2 meters (6 ft. 6 in.) tall to as large as a mountain. Onyudo usually appears as a giant person or an indistinct shadow, though he is known to have the ability to shape-shift.

In most cases, Onyudo is a malevolent figure that can cause people to fall ill simply by looking at them. Some stories identify him as being a fox or tanuki (raccoon dog) that has shape-shifted (a common ability for these animals in Japanese folklore), but in most stories, his true identity remains a mystery.

Onyudo --

The Japanese Wikipedia entry for Onyudo (大入道) includes a nice selection of stories from different areas and time periods. Here are a few.

In Hokkaido during the Kaei period (c. 1850), native Ainu communities reported seeing Onyudo near Lake Shikotsu and Mt. Fuppushidake. It is said that he could drive people to madness and cause them to lose consciousness just by looking at them with his large eyeballs.

In Toyama prefecture, people with medical conditions staying at the Kanetsuri hot springs to cure their diseases claim to have seen a 15- to 18-meter (50 to 60 feet) tall Onyudo, who was described as being surrounded by a beautiful rainbow-colored halo.

In 1937 near Akabane station in Tokyo, a military officer delivering an akagami (draft card) had a frightening encounter with Onyudo at a railroad crossing near Akabane-Hachiman Shrine. Here, Onyudo appeared as a soldier. Four days later, the officer was hit by a train at the same railroad crossing. While stories rarely identify Onyudo as a human spirit, this story suggests the Onyudo was the vengeful ghost of either a new recruit that had committed suicide or a soldier that had been accused of failure and bludgeoned to death by a superior officer.

In some cases, Onyudo is helpful. For instance, according to an old story in the town of Ishii in the Myozai district of Tokushima prefecture, an 8.5-meter (28 feet) tall Onyudo would show up to help mill the rice whenever it accumulated at the local water mill. However, the Onyudo only worked alone, and if anyone tried to observe him while he worked, he would turn angry and frighten them away.

Onyudo -- Yokkaichi's Onyudo also appears to have been rather friendly, according to this website. One day long ago when Yokkaichi was a little merchant town, a large young man appeared at a small local shop and asked the owner to hire him. The shop owner, named Kyuroku, politely refused to employ the large man because the shop was too cramped to accommodate him. But the young man insisted, explaining to Kyuroku that he had just arrived from the countryside in search of work. Kyuroku eventually decided to hire him and gave him a room in his house behind the shop.

Mysteriously, the business began to thrive. Things went so well that after three years, Kyuroku asked the young man to marry his daughter so that he could one day inherit the shop. The young man refused the offer, saying he only wished to continue working as he had been.

Late one night the next summer, Kyuroku woke from his sleep and decided to step outside for some cool air. As he walked past the young man's room, he noticed the glow of an oil lantern inside, visible through the shoji screen. The light cast a large shadow on the shoji that stopped Kyuroku dead in his tracks. He saw the ghastly, dark shape of a head attached to a long sinuous neck, slowly twisting and turning back and forth. Kyuroku watched in horror as the shadow snaked its head to the lantern and began to lick the oil. The head at the end of that horrible neck clearly belonged to the young man.

Kyuroku passed out from fear and fell to the floor. After waking the next morning, he cautiously went to the young man's room and peeked inside. The room was empty except for the man's striped kimono, which lay neatly folded on the floor. He had disappeared without a trace.

Nobody knows what happened to the large mysterious man, but the town of Yokkaichi built the mechanical Onyudo effigy to pay him their respects and wish for his safety.

[Photos/video: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5]

“World’s smallest” gas turbine engine

09 Aug 2007

World's smallest gas turbine engine --

Researchers at Tohoku University have developed a working prototype of what they are calling the world's smallest gas turbine engine, a palm-sized motor they hope will one day be used to power autonomous robots and serve as a portable engine for personal transportation devices.

The research team led by professor Shuji Tanaka from Tohoku University's Nano-Precision Mechanical Fabrication Lab worked with researchers from IHI Corporation and the University of Tokyo to create the tiny engine, which measures 10 cm (4 in.) in diameter and 15 cm (6 in.) in length. With a 16 mm (0.63 in.) compressor rotor diameter and a 17 mm (0.67 in.) turbine rotor diameter and combustion chamber, the engine boasts a rotational speed of 500,000 to 600,000 rpm, which is made possible by special air bearings the researchers developed.

Unlike battery-powered engines that need to stop for periodic recharging, gas turbine engines can run continuously as long as fuel is supplied. Furthermore, gas turbine engines feature a higher power density than fuel cell and battery-powered engines, and they run cleaner than reciprocating piston engines.

With demand expected to increase for robots that use commonly available fuels and compact motors for personal transportation for the elderly, the Tohoku University researchers have been working with IHI since 2000 to develop a portable, lightweight and quiet engine able to operate for long periods of time between refuelings. After 7 years of work, they have broken the 20 mm diameter rotor barrier, a goal long shared by their microturbine-minded peers around the globe.

The engine has not yet been outfitted with a generator because it is still under development, but space has been set aside for it within the engine.

The engine will be officially unveiled at PowerMEMS 2007 scheduled for November 28-29 in Freiberg, Germany.

[Source: Nikkei Net]

Fourth-generation pig clones born

07 Aug 2007

Fourth-generation clone piglets ---

In a development that brings us one step closer toward the mass-cloning of animals for use in regenerative medicine, researchers from Meiji University have succeeded in creating the world's first fourth-generation pig clones.

Since creating a pair of pig clones in April 2004, professor Hiroshi Nagashima, the research team leader, has been recloning the clones using cells from their salivary glands. The fourth-generation piglets -- three of them born on July 23 -- are clones of clones of clones of clones, so they share the exact DNA as the original pig.

Scientists have been seeking to advance pig cloning technology because pig organs are physiologically similar to human organs, meaning they could be the key to alleviating the worldwide shortage of organs for transplant.

Past examples of animals that have been cloned through multiple generations include mice, which have been recloned up to the sixth generation, and cows, which have been recloned to the second generation. While recloning technology may promise to boost the productivity of cloning operations, there are some drawbacks. For instance, in somatic cell nuclear transfer -- a reproductive cloning technique where the nucleus from a donor adult cell (somatic cell) is transferred to a nucleus-free egg cell, which is then transferred into the uterus of a surrogate mother -- DNA damage accumulates with each generation that is cloned. After a number of generations, the cumulative damage to the DNA could result in an animal that is significantly different from the original.

So far, however, the fourth-generation pig clones show no signs of abnormalities, and the researchers are planning to reclone them again.

In addition to creating the world's first fourth-generation pig clones, Nagashima's team also reported success in using a combination of gene transfer technology and cloning technology to create transgenic diabetic pigs -- pigs with human genes that exhibit symptoms of diabetes mellitus. The researchers worked with BIOS Inc., a venture company based in Kanagawa prefecture, to engineer the pigs.

While we have seen transgenic diabetic mice in the past, these transgenic diabetic pigs are reportedly the first of their kind. With the anatomical similarities between man and swine, transgenic diabetic pigs could lead to a cure for diabetes by helping scientists develop transplant technology involving the use of pig pancreatic tissue, a potential source of insulin. In addition, the pigs can also serve as models for observing the complications associated with diabetes, such as arteriosclerosis, and they could help researchers develop new medicines.

Professor Nagashima suggests that in addition to serving as model animals for human diseases, individuals will be able to use their own cells in these bioengineered pigs to test the effectiveness and safety of regenerative medicine therapies.

[Source: Yomiuri, Jiji]