Here is some video of a bioluminescent deep-sea siphonophore -- an eerily fantastic creature that appears to be a single, large organism, but which is actually a colony of numerous individual jellyfish-like animals that behave and function together as a single entity. The individual units, called zooids, all share the same genetic material, and each performs a specialized role within the colony. The best-known siphonophore is the poisonous Portuguese Man o' War (Physalia physalis), which lives at the surface of the ocean, unlike the one shown in this video (filmed at a depth of 770 meters). Some siphonophore species can grow up to 40 meters (130 ft) in length.
Takara Tomy's Omnibot 17μ i-SOBOT, a miniature humanoid robot recognized by Guinness as the smallest mass-produced robot of its kind, has been named Japan's 2008 Robot of the Year, it was announced on December 18.
The annual Robot of the Year Award was established by the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry (METI) in 2006 to stimulate the development and commercial application of robots in a variety of industries.
Judges awarded this year's Grand Prize to i-SOBOT due to its advanced technology, its high entertainment value, and its reasonable price of under 30,000 yen (around $300). Equipped with 17 miniature servo motors, the 350-gram (12 oz), 16.5-centimeter (6.5 in) programmable humanoid can walk, play air guitar, dance the hula, and perform 200 other moves. The tiny hobby robot is also equipped with a set of gyro sensors for balance, and it can be controlled via remote control or simple voice commands. The robot runs for about an hour on 4 AAA batteries.
In addition to the Grand Prize, this year's Small to Medium-sized Venture Award was presented to "Book Time," an automatic page-turning robot developed by Nishizawa Electronic Measuring Instruments.
Designed for use in hospitals by people with limited use of their hands and/or arms, Book Time turns the pages of books with either a simple press of a button, a breath-activated switch, or a large button activated by the user's foot. The robot is compatible with a wide range of book sizes and is easy to set up and use.
This year's Special Jury Prize was awarded to a rice-planting robot developed by the National Agriculture and Food Research Organization (NARO).
This GPS-equipped machine is designed to assist farmers by working autonomously to plant rice within a set of programmed coordinates. It takes the robot about 50 minutes to seed 3,000 square meters (0.75 acre) of land.
Researchers from Japan's ATR Computational Neuroscience Laboratories have developed new brain analysis technology that can reconstruct the images inside a person's mind and display them on a computer monitor, it was announced on December 11. According to the researchers, further development of the technology may soon make it possible to view other people's dreams while they sleep.
The scientists were able to reconstruct various images viewed by a person by analyzing changes in their cerebral blood flow. Using a functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) machine, the researchers first mapped the blood flow changes that occurred in the cerebral visual cortex as subjects viewed various images held in front of their eyes. Subjects were shown 400 random 10 x 10 pixel black-and-white images for a period of 12 seconds each. While the fMRI machine monitored the changes in brain activity, a computer crunched the data and learned to associate the various changes in brain activity with the different image designs.
Then, when the test subjects were shown a completely new set of images, such as the letters N-E-U-R-O-N, the system was able to reconstruct and display what the test subjects were viewing based solely on their brain activity.
For now, the system is only able to reproduce simple black-and-white images. But Dr. Kang Cheng, a researcher from the RIKEN Brain Science Institute, suggests that improving the measurement accuracy will make it possible to reproduce images in color.
"These results are a breakthrough in terms of understanding brain activity," says Dr. Cheng. "In as little as 10 years, advances in this field of research may make it possible to read a person's thoughts with some degree of accuracy."
The researchers suggest a future version of this technology could be applied in the fields of art and design -- particularly if it becomes possible to quickly and accurately access images existing inside an artist's head. The technology might also lead to new treatments for conditions such as psychiatric disorders involving hallucinations, by providing doctors a direct window into the mind of the patient.
ATR chief researcher Yukiyasu Kamitani says, "This technology can also be applied to senses other than vision. In the future, it may also become possible to read feelings and complicated emotional states."
The research results appear in the December 11 issue of US science journal Neuron.
Maywa Denki, a Tokyo-based group of artists/musicians/engineers famous for inventing "nonsensemachines," has teamed up with Kamakura-based IT solutions provider Kayac to develop a device that lets users visualize, monitor and control how they shake their restless legs.
The sleek black diamond-shaped contraption -- called "Yurex" (yure means "shake" in Japanese) -- straps to the thigh. A pair of silver disco ball-shaped sensors measure the leg's horizontal and vertical vibrations, and a 10-digit LCD counter displays the user's accumulated leg-shake tally.
When Yurex is connected to a computer's USB port, special software automatically downloads the data from the device and analyzes the user's leg-shaking habits and rhythm patterns. The software can also generate a personalized "creative beat pattern" based on leg-shake data obtained while the user is in a state of deep concentration. Then, whenever a boost of creative energy is needed, users can simply jiggle their knees in concert with this beat data to achieve higher brain power.
Yurex is the result of the so-called BBU Project, a collaboration between Maywa Denki and Kayac aimed at developing a marketable product that harnesses the energy of binbo-yusuri, or the constant and rapid up-and-down movement of restless legs often done unconsciously and/or out of habit.
Restless legs are highly frowned upon in Japan -- much more so than in other countries -- and the Japanese word binbo-yusuri, which literally translates as "poverty shake," has a very negative ring to it. Incidentally, there are several possible origins for the word. Some suggest it may derive from the fact that a person with a twitchy leg looks like a poor person shivering in the cold. Others link the word's origins to the tendency of loan sharks to tap their feet impatiently when collecting debts from the poor. Also, in Edo-period Japan, it is said that twitchy legs were a telltale sign that one was being stalked by Binbogami, the god of poverty.
Regardless of the word's origins, people tend to have a very negative view of binbo-yusuri, and it is often seen as a sign of poor intelligence and social grace.
The developers of Yurex, however, take a different view. They see binbo-yusuri as a sign of concentration and creativity -- a reflection of the brain at work. Moreover, they believe this "creative beat" can work in reverse. Shaking your leg in the proper way can increase concentration and creativity, they believe. Yurex is thus designed to work as a barometer of mental activity and as a tool to enhance brain power.
Yurex users are also eligible to participate in a social networking community (yurex.jp), whose members are referred to as "yusletes" (binbo-yusuri athletes). Users can display their binbo-yusuri data on the site and update it automatically each time the Yurex is connected to the computer. In addition to seeing how their binbo-yusuri counts rank in comparison to others, members can find the locations of other active "yusletes" through the site.
Yurex can also be used as a standalone device. With a 10-digit display that can tally up to 10 billion shakes, Yurex is suitable for use as a lifetime leg-shake monitor. For reference, a heavy shaker (like Maywa Denki president Nobumichi Tosa) who jiggles his leg an average of 400 times per minute for 8 hours per day will tally up nearly 5 billion shakes over a 70-year period.
Kayac plans to begin accepting orders for Yurex in January. The initial shipment, scheduled to hit shelves next spring, will be limited to 3,000 units. The price has yet to be announced.
Of the countless trains running on Japan's 20,000-kilometer (12,000-mile) rail network, a few are decorated with images of anime and manga characters, colorful ads, and designs by notable artists. Here is a small sample.
Yanase Takashi, creator of the Anpanman anime series, is from Kochi prefecture in Shikoku. The JR Shikoku railway network operates some Anpanman-themed trains.
Anpanman train interior, JR Shikoku, Shikoku [More]
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One-Piece ad train, Enoshima Electric Railway [More]
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Pichon-kun on the Skytrain, Bangkok, Thailand [Photo]
Japanese characters can occasionally be found on trains in other countries. This photo shows Pichon-kun, the robot mascot of Japanese air-conditioning manufacturer Daikin, on the side of the Skytrain in Bangkok, Thailand.