Sunday, February 27, 2005

talking dolls for old japanese

As Japan goes grey, toymakers design dolls for the elderly

Wed Feb 23,11:29 AM ET

TOKYO (AFP) - As Japan produces fewer children and more retirees, toymakers are designing new dolls designed not for the young but for the lonely elderly -- companions which can sleep next to them and offer caring words they may never hear otherwise.

AFP/File Photo

Talking toys have become such a hit that some elderly people have embraced them as substitutes for the children who have grown old and deserted entire neighborhoods in the rapidly greying country.

The Yumel doll, which looks like a baby boy and has a vocabulary of 1,200 phrases, is billed as a "healing partner" for the elderly and goes on the market Thursday at a price of 8,500 yen (80 dollars).

About 8,000 Yumel dolls, designed by toymaker Tomy with pillows and bedding maker Lofty, have already been sold in less than three months in limited marketing in sleeping sections of department stores.

"Toymakers are targeting senior citizens as the number of children is falling. We are also striving to attract them," said Osamu Kiriseko, who headed the Yumel project.

Another toymaker, Bandai, in November 1999 launched the Primopuel doll which is meant to resemble a five-year-old boy who needs the same sort of attention, asking to be hugged and entertained.

The toy has proved a hit not only with children but with the elderly and more than one million dollars have been sold over the past five years.

On November 13, Bandai went to a Tokyo amusement park to celebrate the fifth "birthday" of Primopuel, inviting doll owners to pay homage at a nearby shrine in a ritual just like parents of real Japanese five-year-olds do that month.

"There has been demand for dolls which can 'heal' you but toys available on the market were mostly for daytime," said Kiriseko.

"I thought that you need to enjoy the night together if you really hope to live with a doll."

The 37-centimeter (15-inch) Yumel -- deriving from the Japanese word "yume", or "dream" -- looks like a sleepy baby boy but is equipped with six sensors and an IC chip which keep track of the owner's sleeping time.

The doll can be programmed to "sleep" or "wake up" in accordance with the owner's pattern, saying "good morning" with open eyes at due time or inviting the elderly to sleep with the doll's eyelids drooping.

"I feel so good, g-o-o-d n-i-g-h-t," the doll says before falling asleep if the owner pats it on the chest gently.

Or Yumel may ask, "Aren't you pushing yourself too hard?" when it judges the owner has been going to bed too irregularly or not spending enough time playing with it.

"If you lead an orderly life, Yumel will be in a good mood, singing songs or pleading with you to do something like buying him toys," Kiriseko said.

He said the doll could serve as a more suitable companion for the elderly than man's best friend.

"The market for this doll overlaps with a market of dogs, cats and other pets," he said. "But some older people worry about the possibility of dying and leaving their loved pets behind."

Some 500 customers have sent in comments since October, many of them hailing the changes to their lives since Yumel entered the picture, with a 95-year-old woman the oldest respondent.

"Thank you for giving me a heart-warming baby. I'm no longer alone," an 82-year-old woman wrote while another senior woman said she was raising the doll "as my own child".

Some customers are so much in love with the doll that they are troubled by casual questions it asks.

"Some say they cannot give Yumel good answers when it asks questions such as 'Why do elephants have long noses?'" Kiriseko said.

"You may think they don't have to answer as it's just a doll who's asking, but they are truly perplexed," Kiriseko said.

The toymaker found a solution in the new-version Yumel: The doll's statement has been modified from a question to the statement, "It's interesting elephants have long noses."

Japan is a country with one of the world's lowest birth rates and oldest populations. The nation's birth rate hit an all-time low of 1.29 children per woman in 2003.

The government said Monday that Japan's population rose a mere 0.05 percent in the year to October 2004 and could decline this year for the first time since records began in 1950.

Traditionally, the eldest son was expected to live with their parents as they grew older and many young Japanese still stay at home for financial reasons as Japan has some of the world's highest rents.

But the custom is fading out in the younger generation as more Japanese singles choose to live independently and favor careers and lifestyles over the pressures of having children and taking care of their parents.

The Japanese are also famous for their longevity, with more than 23,000 people aged 100 or over.

In December, a software firm released on the market a 45-centimeter (18-inch) robot for the elderly named Snuggling Ifbot, who is dressed in an astronaut suit with a glowing face.

If a person tells Snuggling Ifbot, "I'm bored today," the 576,000 yen (5,600-dollar) robot might respond, "Are you bored? What do you want to do?"

To a statement, "Isn't it nice today?", the robot could say, "It is a fine autumn day," by detecting the season from its internal clock.

The robot's maker Dream Supply said the Snuggling Ifbot had the conversation ability of a five-year-old -- considered just enough for small talk to keep the elderly from going senile.

Thursday, February 17, 2005

robots buidling cities on mars


François Roche is a French architect whose firm, R&Sie, is aptly pronounced "heresy." Among his brainchildren is Dusty Relief, an edifice under construction in Bangkok which is surrounded by electrically charged wire that "grows fur" by statically attracting airborne filth. He has also conceived stealth habitats, hypothetical communities hidden from regulators and critics by vast sheets of camo netting. Architects are supposed to draw up plans, erect structures, and finish on time and under budget. Roche is exploring what happens when the usual constraints are allowed to fall away and things get wild and loose.

As a master of conceptual architecture, Roche likes to collaborate with installation artists. This tactic allows him to avoid hidebound European safety regulations when he proposes, for instance, a steel footbridge whose design, sketched using industry-standard CAD software, has been radically distorted by a computer virus. Ask Europeans to cross a buggy footbridge and they'll balk, quail, and consult the 80,000 regulatory pages of the EU's acquis communautaire. Tell them it's art, and they'll flock to it in droves, sit on it, and drink Beaujolais nouveau.

Roche's latest project will appear in museums in Paris and Antwerp over the next three years. Titled I've Heard About Node 1, it's as audacious as architecture's peaks of weirdness in the '60s; say, the Suitaloon, a combination garment and dwelling proposed by Michael Webb of the London hipster firm Archigram. And yet Roche's scheme is not just fun to think about, but eerily plausible. He's exploiting ideas that make perfect sense in computer-driven fabrication but have never been applied to architecture. Imagine a building where the needs and desires of its inhabitants are hot-wired to the shapes of walls and floors, which can be extended and updated ad hoc, ad infinitum.

That's Node 1. It's an idea for a building, yes, but it lacks most of the usual architectural accoutrements: blueprints, material suppliers, subcontractors. Instead, Roche imagines a programmable assembly device dubbed the "viab," a construction robot capable of improvising as it assembles walls, ducts, cables, and pipes.

A viab would produce structures that are not set and specific, but impermanent and malleable - merely viable - made of a uniform, recyclable substance like adobe. The automaton's output would have no innate design, boundaries, or service life. It would take whatever form was called for at the moment - a great rotting blooming stony bubble of a building that, unlike all previous forms of human habitation, would be unplanned, responsive, densely monitored, massively customized, and rock-solid, with all modern conveniences.

The closest thing to a viab today is a small, modest mud-working robot invented by Behrokh Khoshnevis, a professor of engineering at the University of Southern California. Khoshnevis' "contour crafter" works more or less like a 3-D printer, but it's meant to assemble whole buildings. Its nozzle spits wet cement while a programmable trowel smoothes the goo into place. Roche encountered Khoshnevis, and his agile imagination immediately started pushing the idea toward its limits.

The concept isn't as alien as it may seem; nature has been doing something similar for eons. Termites build skyscrapers by spitting and smoothing mud, then removing the structure if it gets in the way. A mound is shaped by the activity of the society within it. Roche imagines his viab as a busy termite with a body full of wet cement. It crawls ceaselessly across the structure, spewing new form and gnawing out old form, obeying an algorithm directly linked to the needs of the people inside.

It can also work without people entirely. The moon or Mars would be a natural venue for the concept, a place too hostile for mankind, where viabs could work around the clock: Let robots spit out a city, then settle in when it's ready.

It might be a long time before a scheme this weird is realized. But suppose it is. Churchill once said, "We shape our buildings, and afterwards our buildings shape us." He was thinking about how nations evolve over generations, but in Node 1, those processes would play out once a week. The old brick-and-mortar rules would be gone, as though the crowded playa at Burning Man were to raise up mud castles rivaling the Transamerica Pyramid.

Do we need a capacity like that? It's impossible to say, because the notion is genuinely heretical. It's not every day that an age-old discipline like architecture coughs up an anomaly that's unthinkable. This is one of those fine moments.

Email Bruce Sterling at

Monday, February 07, 2005

skins for robots

Korean Researchers Develop Skin-Like Tactile Sensor

A South Korean scientific research center said Sunday that it has developed a tactile sensor capable of functioning like human skin.

The left picture shows the letters of the Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology (KAIST) caught through a tactile sensor functioning like human skin and the right picture is its enlarged image. Scientists from KAIST developed the precision tactile sensor with 1-millimeter spatial resolution.
The tactile sensor is made of polydimethylsiloxane, a synthetic rubber, and has a 1-millimeter spatial resolution capability, the Korea Advanced Institute of Science & Technology (KAIST) said.

``Many tactile sensors have been developed so far, but ours has the highest spatial resolution capability, flexibility, softness and extensibility,’’ said Lee Hyung-kyu, who led the development project.

Late last year, the University of Tokyo unveiled a tactile sensor with a spatial resolution capability of 2 millimeters.

Lee said his team will announce the results of their research at an international conference on micro-electro-mechanical systems, to be held early next month in the U.S. city of Miami.

The new sensor is widely expected to lay the foundation for coating humanoids such as South Korea's HUBO or Japan's ASIMO with artificial skin.

HUBO is a humanoid robot recently developed by KAIST. It is capable of moving its fingers independently, dancing and shaking hands with people by using its 41 joints.

Japan's ASIMO, an acronym for Advanced Step in Innovative Mobility, was unveiled in 2000 as the world's most advanced bi-pedal robot.

Through several upgrades, it is now able to spin in the air, bend or twist its torso and maneuver around obstacles in its path.