Archives: December 2007

Pink Tentacle greatest hits – 2007

28 Dec 2007

Pink Tentacle greatest hits 2007 --

As we near the end of 2007, now is the time to look back at Pink Tentacle's most popular stories of the year. Here is a rundown of the top ten crowd-pleasers of 2007 (based on total page views for the year). Enjoy!

1. Rice paddy art: Photos of wonderful crop art in the village of Inakadate. (See also the harvest photos.)

2. Otaku fuel tanks: This mini-gallery of custom-made anime-themed fuel tank door decals was big in Japan.

3. Transparent frogs: Because sometimes it's more convenient to have see-through skin.

4. Frilled shark: Rare footage of a lovely prehistoric creature from the depths.

5. Extreme custom vans: Links to photo galleries of extreme custom vans.

6. Neo-Ruins: Hisaharu Motoda's haunting lithographs of post-apocalyptic Tokyo.

7. RFID powder: Hitachi brings us RFID chips in powdered form.

8. Yuki-taro: Cute robot that gobbles up snow and defecates blocks of ice.

9. Electro-conductive cement: Slightly Star Trek?

10. Japanese buzzwords: List of 60 popular words and phrases of 2007.

Also, special thanks to PC Magazine for including this site in their list of 100 favorite blogs and to the readers of What Japan Thinks for voting this site the Japan technology blog of the year. Next year promises to be chock full of excitement, so make sure to visit again soon!

Video: Subway Lung

27 Dec 2007

Subway Lung --

T-shirt retailer Beams-T is handing out a free art-themed DVD magazine to customers in Japan. The DVD showcases the work of five artists from around the world, including this incredibly loony scrolling video-collage of found GIF animations put together by international man of mystery Subway Lung (a.k.a. Tokyo Windbag).

You can see the other DVD magazine videos on kurandofuruya's YouTube page (the light-based graffiti video by Kieph/Atsushi Sasaki is also recommended).

2007 Robot of the Year

20 Dec 2007

Japan's Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry (METI) has announced the winners of the 2007 Robot Award. The top honor of "Robot of the Year" goes to Fanuc's super-fast two-armed industrial robot system equipped with visual tracking functions, which is optimized for work on food and pharmaceutical manufacturing lines.

Here is a short video (via PingMag) that shows how fast the robot arms can work:

Additional prizes were presented to four other notable robots, including miuro (ZMP's innovative audio network robot that plays iPod music, dances and follows you from room to room), a robotic blood sample courier system (developed by Matshushita) that uses autonomous robots working together to transport blood samples at laboratories, miniature AC servo actuators developed by Harmonic Drive Systems, and an MR image-guided surgical robot system developed by Hitachi and several universities. (See the descriptions below for more details.)

The five prize-winning robots were selected from a list of 13 finalists named last month.

METI established the annual Robot Award in 2006 to recognize outstanding developments in the field of robotics, encourage further research and development, and stimulate demand.

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GRAND PRIZE -- 2007 ROBOT OF THE YEAR (Selected by Minister of Economy, Trade and Industry)

- Food/pharmaceutical handling system with M-430iA robot arms and visual tracking

M-430iA robot arms --


This robotic food and pharmaceutical handling system features advanced visual tracking functions and a pair of multi-axis robot arms that each can accurately pick up 120 items per minute as they move along a conveyor belt. The arms can work non-stop 24 hours a day, are resistant to acid and alkaline cleaners, and feature wrists with plastic parts that eliminate the need for grease. The sanitary design provides the cleanliness required of machines tasked with handling food and medicine. With a proven record of success in reducing manufacturing costs and improving quality, about 150 systems have been sold to manufacturers worldwide since October 2006. [More]

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SMALL- TO MEDIUM-SIZED VENTURE AWARD (Selected by Small and Medium Enterprise Agency)

- miuro

miuro -- ZMP Inc.

Miuro -- short for "Music Innovation based on Utility RObot technology" -- is a network audio robot that plays music from a docked iPod or from a wirelessly connected computer. Gyroscopes and acceleration sensors enable miuro to follow you from room to room and dance while blasting tunes through speakers developed by Kenwood. Miuro promises to help create a new market for devices that combine robotics and audio technology. To further develop the market, ZMP plans to begin selling a limited-edition model at the Apple Store in December 2007 and release a low-cost version next year.

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- Robotic Blood Sample Courier System

Robotic Blood Sample Courier System --

Matsushita Electric Works, Ltd.

Matsushita's Robotic Blood Sample Courier System consists of autonomous mobile robots working as a team to perform blood sample delivery and courier tasks at hospitals and laboratories. A group control computer assigns various tasks to individual robots who pick up blood samples, deliver them to automatic analyzers, and collect the samples after testing. An automatic battery charging system enables the system to work around the clock by preventing all the robots from running out of power at the same time. At present, 17 robot systems are working at hospitals and laboratories, where they are helping to improve the reliability and efficiency of operations. [More]

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- Mini AC servo actuators developed by Harmonic Drive Systems were recognized for their superior performance.

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- MR Image-Guided Surgical Robotic System

MR Image-Guided Surgical Robotic System --

Kyushu University
Hitachi, Ltd.
Hitachi Medical Corp.
MIZUHO Co., Ltd.
University of Tokyo
Waseda University

This endoscopic surgery support system uses a high-precision robotic surgical clamp that moves like a tiny (1-cm diameter) human hand, while magnetic resonance images (MRI) provide real-time navigation during surgery. Able to outperform the human hand and eye, this system brings an unprecedented level of accuracy and safety to endoscopic surgery. The system is still in the research and development phase, but its effectiveness has been confirmed in 8 liver cancer treatments performed between April and September 2007.

[Source: Robot Award 2007 (PDF)]

Video: ‘Spiderman’ climbs Tokyo building

18 Dec 2007

This 1998 news report shows urban climber Alain Robert (a.k.a. "Spiderman") scaling the exterior wall of a Tokyo skyscraper bare-handed. The video begins with Spiderman requesting official permission to climb a building. After being denied, he heads over to the 54-story Shinjuku Center Building, which stands 223 meters (732 feet) tall, and he quickly scurries up the side before anyone can stop him. When he reaches the roof about 38 minutes later, Spiderman is detained by police who, according to his website, roughed him up for 5 days until the French Embassy negotiated his release. Spiderman has scaled more than 70 giant structures around the world, many without the use of climbing equipment. [Video]

Toyota studies brain to develop future cars, robots

17 Dec 2007

Brain -- In an effort to accelerate the development of next-generation automobiles and robots, Toyota is turning to some of Japan's top neuroscientists. According to a December 14 announcement, the automaker has teamed up with the Institute of Physical and Chemical Research (RIKEN) in a 20-year project aimed at researching the human brain and developing neurotechnology-based auto safety systems, sophisticated robots, and machinery that users can operate with their minds.

Toyota and RIKEN will conduct the brain research at the recently established RIKEN BSI-Toyota Collaboration Center, which will initially be staffed by 30 researchers, 5 of whom are from Toyota. The research will fall into three broad categories: (1) neuro-driving research, which focuses on the mental processes at work as drivers perceive, judge and react to the external environment, (2) neuro-robotics research, which focuses on how the brain processes information, and (3) mind-health research, which focuses on the physiology of the brain and nervous system and the relationship between the brain and physical health.

Through the neuro-driving research, which is expected to shed new light on how the brain works as drivers perceive obstacles and operate their vehicles, Toyota ultimately hopes to develop auto safety technology that can completely prevent all traffic accidents.

In addition, the automaker explains that the purpose behind the neuro-robotics research is to develop advanced robots that can interact more effectively with humans. Toyota, which sees robotics as one of its core businesses in the future, has been stepping up efforts in recent years to develop "lifestyle support" androids for use in nursing and health care. The company also believes the research will lead to the development of brain-machine interfaces that allow users to operate equipment by thought.

Toyota explains that the decision to pursue brain research is driven by an ever-increasing demand for more sophisticated automotive and robot technology. With a better understanding of the cognitive mechanisms underlying human feelings, thoughts and actions, the company reckons it can get a head start in the race to develop the cars and robots of the future.

[Sources: Sankei, Nikkei]

‘Heart muscle sheets’ grown from thigh muscle

16 Dec 2007

Heart muscle sheet -- Medical researchers from Osaka University Hospital have succeeded in repairing the weakened heart of a severe cardiac patient by applying thin sheets of muscle tissue grown from cells taken from the patient's thigh. The regenerative medicine technique -- described as the world's first in which a patient waiting for an organ transplant was successfully treated using his or her own cells -- may one day provide an alternative to heart transplant, the researchers say.

The procedure was performed on a 56-year-old male suffering from dilated cardiomyopathy, a condition in which a weakened and enlarged heart becomes unable to pump blood efficiently. The patient, who was outfitted with a ventricular assist device after being hospitalized in February 2006, had been on a transplant waiting list. Instead of receiving a transplant, the patient underwent the experimental heart treatment in May of this year.

To perform the procedure, the researchers first took about 10 grams of muscle from one of the patient's thighs. Myoblast cells (a type of muscle stem cell) were then extracted from the muscle tissue, placed in a culture solution and grown into 50-micron-thick sheets measuring about 5 centimeters (2 inches) in diameter. Several layers of myoblast sheets were then applied to the surface of the impaired heart, where they helped strengthen the muscle and restore cardiac function.

Within months, the patient's pulse rate and cardiac output (the amount of blood pumped from the heart with each contraction) returned to normal levels. The patient's ventricular assist device was removed in September, and doctors say he will be able to lead a normal life after being released from the hospital at the end of this month.

Osaka University Hospital is planning further clinical studies in cooperation with Tokyo Women's Medical University. Over the next two years, researchers will perform the "heart muscle sheet" treatment on six dilated cardiomyopathy patients under the age of 70 who have been outfitted with cardiac assist devices and are waiting for heart transplants.

[Source: Asahi]

Video: Kokiriko Bushi

12 Dec 2007

Kokiriko Bushi --

Omodaka's 21st-century disco version of Kokiriko Bushi -- an ancient folk song that Gokayama (Toyama prefecture) villagers used to perform for the local Shinto deities -- combines synthesized vocals with a Stevie Wonder-ish bassline and '80s video game chiptune sounds, and the wonderfully quirky and surreal video (animated by Teppei Maki) features a fragile skeleton dancer that shares the floor with lots of disembodied hands and floating eyeball-headed ladies. [Video]

Incidentally, the kokiriko is a type of percussion instrument made from old bamboo used in the roofs of traditional farmhouses. After being all but forgotten, Kokiriko Bushi was revived in the mid-20th century and has become one of Japan's most well-known folk songs.

Teppei Maki also directed the animation for DJ Kentaro's Tasogare Highway High...

...and he has worked on videos for Kaskade (Be Still), the Beat Crusaders (Your Song Is Good) and Fuuri (Nana Song), none of which appear to be available online.

Dekochari art bikes (video)

10 Dec 2007

Deco-chari art bikes from Japan --

For decades, dekochari have been the ride of choice for hardcore Japanese dekotora fans that are too young to drive. Modeled after Japan's celebrated art trucks, dekochari (deko means "decoration" and chari is slang for "bicycle") typically feature large front bumpers, ornate luggage racks, rear-mounted boxes that resemble truck trailers, colorful paint jobs, lots of chrome, and sophisticated electric light displays. This video pieces together random night scenes from Dekochari Yarou, a documentary that profiles a few dekochari enthusiasts and their custom rides. The soundtrack is "Ichiban-boshi Blues" (sung by Bunta Sugawara and Kinya Aikawa), the theme song from the Torakku Yarou movie series that sparked Japan's dekotora craze in the '70s.

+ Video

Toyota unveils robot violinist (video)

07 Dec 2007

Toyota robot violinist -- On December 6, several months after Toyota's DJ Robot ditched its entertainment career for a job as a receptionist and renamed itself "Robina," the auto giant unveiled a new, musically-inclined Partner Robot that can play violin. A total of 17 computer-controlled joints in its flexible arms and agile fingers allow the robot to hold the violin and correctly press the strings against the fingerboard with its left hand, while gently drawing the bow across the strings with its right hand. In a recital held at a Toyota showroom in Tokyo, the 152-centimeter (5-ft) tall humanoid entertained guests with a slightly robotic but technically adept rendition of "Pomp and Circumstance."

The robot violinist is the latest addition to Toyota's ensemble of musical androids, which can also play trumpet, tuba, trombone, French horn and percussion. In addition to further developing its musical skills, Toyota aims to continue improving the robot's dexterity and coordination so that it can one day perform household chores.

Also unveiled at the demonstration was a new mobility robot -- a motorized chair that balances itself on a pair of self-adjusting Segway-like wheels that can roll smoothly over uneven surfaces and rough terrain. Intended as a personal transport system for the elderly, the mobility robot can run at a maximum speed of 6 kilometers per hour (3.7 mph) for 20 kilometers (12 miles) on a single battery charge, can handle 10-degree slopes, and is outfitted with sensors that allow it to avoid collisions with obstacles. Users can also summon the robot by remote control and use it as a porter to carry luggage.

Toyota plans to begin testing the robots at hospitals next year, with the hope of putting them into practical use by the early part of the next decade.

(Watch a news report about the robots.)

[Sources: Toyota, NHK]