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Toyota shows range with robot violinist

The Japanese automaker's CEO expects robotics to become a key business within a few years.

December 07, 2007|From the Associated Press

TOKYO — Compared with a virtuoso, its rendition was a trifle stilted and, well, robotic. But Toyota's new robot plays a pretty solid "Pomp and Circumstance" on the violin.

The 5-foot-tall, all-white robot, shown Thursday, used its mechanical fingers to press the strings correctly and bowed with its other arm, coordinating the movements well.

Toyota Motor Corp. has already shown robots that roll around to work as guides and have fingers dexterous enough to play the trumpet.

President Katsuaki Watanabe said robotics would be a core business for the Japanese automaker in coming years. Toyota will test out its robots at hospitals, company-related facilities and other places starting next year, he said. And Toyota hopes to put what it calls "partner robots" to real use by 2010, Watanabe said.

"We want to create robots that are useful for people in everyday life," he said in Tokyo.

Watanabe and other company executives said robotics was a natural extension of the automaker's use of robots in manufacturing, as well the development of technology for autos related to artificial intelligence, such as sensors and pre-crash safety systems.

Watanabe presented a vision of the future in which wheelchair-like "mobility robots" -- also displayed Thursday -- would offer "bed-to-bed" services to people, including the elderly and sick, just like cars take people door-to-door.

In a demonstration, a man got on the mobility robot, a motorized two-wheeled chair, then scooted around. Toyota showed how the moving machine could go up and down slopes and over bumps without upsetting the person sitting on the chair because the wheels could adjust to such changes.

The Japanese government has been recently pushing companies and researchers to make robotics a pillar of this nation's business.

Toyota, maker of the Prius hybrid and the best-selling Camry sedan, has been a relative latecomer in robots compared with its domestic rival Honda Motor Co. as well as other companies, including Hitachi Ltd., Fujitsu Ltd. and NEC Corp.

Honda has been working on robots since 1986, recognizing the technology as crucial for delivering mobility in the future. It is showing the latest technology in its robot -- the Asimo humanoid -- next week.

Asimo -- which stands for Advanced Step in Innovative Mobility and is a play on the Japanese word for "legs" -- first became available for rental in 2000. It's considered one of the world's most advanced humanoids. Seen often at Honda and various events, it can walk and even jog, wave, avoid obstacles and carry on simple conversations.

The 51-inch-tall, bubble-headed Asimo looks like a real-life child in a white spacesuit. It has grown smaller and lighter in size with innovations over the years.

Trying to one-up its rival, Toyota has been aggressively beefing up its robotics team. In August it announced that it was teaming up with Sony Corp., which discontinued its Aibo dog-like robot last year, to develop an intelligent single-seat vehicle.

Toyota said it was working with universities and its group companies to speed up robotics development, but ruled out a collaboration with Honda for the time being.

Executive Vice President Takeshi Uchiyamada said technology that Toyota had developed in industrial manufacturing and automotive engineering would "spiral up" into robots.

"We hope to create a robot that highlights Toyota's strengths," he said.

Also Thursday, the automaker showed its Robina robot, a legless robot on wheels, which has been working as a guide at Toyota's showroom at its headquarters in Japan this year.

Robina interacted smoothly with a person, including carrying on a simple conversation. It also showed how it could sign its name in script holding a fat felt-tip pen with its three fingers.

"I am 120 centimeters tall and how much I weigh is a secret," the robot said clearly in a feminine voice. "I know a lot about the Prius."

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