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Paro celebrates its 10th birthday with new colors

Paro has been certified “the world’s most therapeutic robot” by the Guinness Book of World Records, and is celebrating its 10th birthday this year with limited edition colors.

The robot, which was modeled after a baby harp seal, has totaled about 2,200 sales in its first decade (1,800 in Japan and about 400 in 30 other countries).  Only about 200 units will feature the two new colors, “Charcoal” grey and “Sakura” pink.  They retail for around 350,000 JPY ($4,500 USD), or about a thousand dollars more if you want a three year warranty.

[source: MyNavi News (JP)]




Interview with Director Jake Schreier (Robot & Frank)

Frank Langella & Jake Schreier on the set of Robot & Frank

Earlier we reviewed the wonderful new indie film Robot & Frank, which debuted last month and is now in theaters.  We were able to get in touch with director Jake Schreier and asked him a few questions about his views, his film, and (of course) robots.

Plastic Pals: Please introduce yourself to my readers.

Jake Schreier: Hi, my name is Jake Schreier.  I grew up in Berkeley, CA and went to NYU film school, where I met Christopher Ford, who wrote the script.

You mentioned in the Q & A that you did for io9 that prior to this you directed commercials for eight years, similar to directors like Ridley Scott and David Fincher.  Can you elaborate on your experience during this time, and maybe point us to some ads we might recognize?

Ha, well I don’t know if my commercial career quite resembled Fincher’s and Scott’s, but it’s definitely been a great way to hone skills over the years and get up to speed on all kinds of different technologies.  Also, in a more direct way, my commercial production company produced Robot & Frank, so there was a lot of serendipity there.

I’ve read that film shoots are usually about three weeks and the days are very long.  This is your first feature length film – how would you describe the shoot?

The shoot was a total of 20 days, spread over 4 weeks.  It’s definitely a lot to get done in a very short amount of time.  There isn’t room for being wrong very often, or covering yourself for mistakes.  On our set, the biggest issue was that we had a girl in a robot suit in 100 degrees, very humid conditions in upstate New York.

Yikes!  How did she feel about the suit?  I’m sure there’s a great blooper reel somewhere that you can put on the home release.

Rachael was a real trooper, but it’s a hard experience being in that thing, especially in the heat.  We’d have to take 2 minute breaks between almost every take to give her enough air.

Rethink Robotics’ Unveils Game-Changing Industrial Bot

Rethink Robotics (formerly Heartland Robotics), a U.S. start-up founded by Rodney Brooks (former MIT professor who later co-founded iRobot), is finally launching their low-cost industrial robot. Originally the company was aiming at a price of just $5,000, but that proved a bit ambitious as the final cost is $22,000 USD.  That’s still incredibly cheap for a dual-armed robot when you consider that some robot manipulators (not including the actual robot arms), like those from Barrett, cost upwards of $80,000.  This price point could bust the door wide open on robotics for industries that typically don’t use the technology.

Take Kawada Industries’ NEXTAGE robot (similar in size and functionality) for comparison – it costs between 7~8 million Yen ($89,000~$102,000).  You could buy four Baxters for that!  Unlike other industrial robots, these two can work next to people without safety barriers and are only meant to handle small, lightweight objects: Baxter has a rated payload of just 5 lbs (6.6 lbs for the NEXTAGE).  This makes them ideal for material handling tasks like pick-and-place operations and light assembly jobs like those at Foxconn that tend to be mind-numbingly tedious.

• SURO-P

SUPCON Robot Control Research Institute (a division of Zhejiang University) is marketing a new service robot called SURO-P.  Although you can’t see them in the above photo, the SURO-P has large rabbit ears on its head since it is meant to look like a cute magical bunny.  The mobile robot has navigational planning and can give guided tours in most venues.  Like many similar robots, SURO-P comes with a touch screen (from the looks of things, it may be a tablet) that can display maps or product information, and it has face recognition, speech recognition, and simple chat capabilities.

Anyone can easily supervise the robot over a wireless network using a smartphone or tablet (to stop the robot when necessary), but the company claims that isn’t necessary thanks to its world class autonomous path-planning technology. It seems likely that SURO-P’s chassis sits on top of the SURO mobile robot research platform (also developed by SUPCON).  The SURO unit contains a number of sensors including ultrasonic range detectors, stereo cameras, a laser range finder, and GPS navigation and mapping.  These should prevent the robot from ramming into objects or people.

Although rather simple in terms of its design, the LED array in its head can express a variety of animated emotions, and its arms can swivel.  The robot’s appearance was done by Feel Design, an industrial product design company.  SUPCON and Feel Design have developed a number of simple service robots over the past few years (see Hai Bao, Unicom’s “waiter”, and an earlier service robot).  These and other examples from around the world seem to be suffering from technological stagnation.

[source: Supcon (CN)]

• Final Fantasy Tactics A2: Grimoire of the Rift

developed & published by Square-Enix / 2008.06.24
1 player / 2 save slots / Flash ROM / Nintendo DS

Final Fantasy Tactics A2: Grimoire of the Rift is another installment in Square-Enix’s turn-based strategy role-playing franchise.  As expected it shares more in common with its GameBoy Advance predecessor than the PlayStation game (now available on the PSP and iPhone).  It’s one of the best examples of its genre, but it requires a big commitment.

Taking a page from The Neverending Story, a young boy named Luso is transported to the fantasy world of Ivalice when, during detention at the school library, he opens a magical book.  What follows is a simple story that can be kept on the back-burner as you complete literally hundreds of optional quests – some of which have multiple episodes that form little side stories.  It’s a good enough excuse to spend hours steeped in tactical battles, but I do wish they’d return to the darker atmosphere of the earlier Tactics games.

Famibot Watches Your House While You’re Away

This week the IFA 2012 is being held in Berlin, Germany, and consumer electronics products from around the world are being shown there.  Among the robotic set are some household robots from Chinese manufacturer ECOVACS that has been marketing its own line of Roomba-like vacuum cleaners since the year 2000.  Their vacuum robots cost between $270~$470 USD depending on the model.

Winbot is a two-piece window cleaning robot that (similar to the Windoro) uses magnets to cling together on either side of a pane of glass.  It then follows a zig-zag motion and uses a combination of cleaning solution and three sets of micro-fiber scrubbers to clean the window.  However, unlike the Windoro which can handle a glass thickness up to 25 mm the Winbot is only good up to 12 mm (no thicker than 0.4 inches).  You can change the magnetic attraction by turning the handle until an indicator light says everything is optimal, and you’ll want to be careful because the user manual says the magnets are strong enough to crack or shatter the glass!  The Winbot costs around $400 USD.

Waseda University Opens New RT Frontier

Waseda University’s WE-R4 and iSHA on display

On August 23rd Waseda University, the birthplace of the first real humanoid robots, held the opening ceremony for the New RT Frontier (RT = Robot Technology).  The building is located in Nishi-Waseda, Shinjuku ward, Tokyo (about an 8 minute walk from Waseda Station Subway Tozai Line) and replaces the old RT Frontier building found near the university campus.  The primary purpose of the New RT Frontier’s first floor is to showcase the fruits of the university’s state-of-the-art robotics research to the public.

The building will be open to the public once a month (and will take special requests depending on the availability of the research staff), so you’ll want to plan ahead.   The main attraction will likely be the humanoid robots designed to assist the elderly and disabled in a super-aging society, including several we have covered on this website (such as iSHA).  However there are several other (some might say less glamorous) examples of robotic rehabilitation equipment to view and interact with, including walkers, treadmills, and bio-medical tools. For example, a treadmill designed to treat patients with hemiplegia (paralysis on one side of the body, often due to stroke) can help train them to walk again with varying speeds for either leg.

Humanoid Robots Invade Hotel Lobby in Akihabara

From right to left: NAO, Gemini, and PALRO

Researchers from the University of Tsukuba have positioned humanoid robots in hotel lobbies in Tsukuba and Akihabara.  It’s all part of a new study into human-robot interaction in public spaces, with the goal of easing society’s eventual coexistence with robots.  The robots can speak multiple languages and interact through chat, motion, and touch, and include the likes of Fuji Soft Inc.’s PALRO and Aldebaran Robotics’ NAO.

The main attraction of this research project are undoubtedly the Gemini robots developed at the university, which have grown out of a design project from 2009 and the TalkTorque robots.  Previously the Gemini robots were nothing more than conceptual models, but the pair have been upgraded with moving parts and wheeled bases (for mobility).

[source: Akiba Keizai Shimbun (JP)]