January 26, 2014 1:00 pm JST

Robots bring healing, other functions to people's daily lives

HISASHI IWATO, Nikkei staff writer

The latest version of the Paro robot has advanced functions such as responding when called. © AIST

TOKYO -- Robots for personal use are increasingly finding their way into people's daily lives.

     Various types of robots have been released recently, ranging from small, cute machines that can be assembled even by children but move like humans, to animallike robots designed to provide comfort. With advanced functions, robots are getting closer to people in their life.

     A group of four small and midsize companies, including Tokyo-based Kiluck, will release a ready-to-assemble robot at the end of February, featuring realistic moves with 12 joints. Named Rapiro, the 25cm-tall robot, which weighs 1kg, walks on two legs and has two hands for holding objects.

     The cute, dumpy-looking Rapiro comprises about 30 parts and can be assembled by screwing and connecting them together. Designed for use by young people older than 12 years, it can be connected to various machines when a credit card-size computer, called the Raspberry Pi, is built into it. The computer is available for several thousand yen.

     The consortium was formed when Kiluck CEO Shota Ishiwatari called for JMC, a resin processor in Yokohama and two other firms to join in the development project. The project is making use of crowdfunding, the practice of collecting small-lot investments via the Internet. Ishiwatari raised more than 15 million yen ($14,200) this way, as the use of a 3-D printer and the Raspberry Pi in the project drew strong attention.

     "Our marketing target is students studying at universities and industrial high schools," Ishiwatari said. He expects Rapiro to arouse demand as a tool for teaching programming involving actual designing of programs and checking movements based on them, and research into motor control. The consortium will also market the robot as a hobby kit.

     Rapiro will be priced at around 40,000 yen, compared with existing ready-to-assemble humanoid robots sold as hobby kits for more than 100,000 yen.

Updated seal bot

Among other developments, Intelligent System, a robot venture company in Nanto, Toyama Prefecture, released an updated version of the Paro seal-shaped therapy robot in September last year.

     According to the National Institute of Advanced Industrial Science and Technology (AIST), which developed Paro, the robot has healing effects like therapy animals as it shows signs of happiness when caressed and reacts when called.

     Since the Paro robot was first put on the market in 2005, some 3,000 units have been sold in about 30 countries.

     Designed as pet alternatives, the past Paro models were controlled by an algorithm designed to show animallike movements. The latest version has an operating system based on a new algorithm developed for therapeutic use so that it accepts unfavorable stimuli.

     Intelligent System expects demand for the new version of Paro, priced at 350,000 yen, from nursing-care and other facilities.

     Pip, an Osaka-based maker of medical and sanitary goods, is offering a 21,000 yen interactive robot, Unazuki Kabochan, for use by the elderly, while developing a new model equipped with sensors, communications and other functions that check users' wake-up hours and other conditions and send them to their families and other people concerned.

     The robot nods and responds when spoken to. Pip has sold some 7,000 units since it released the robot in 2011.

     The Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry expects the market for robots applicable to nursing-care, security and other services to grow to 4.9 trillion yen in 2035 from around 60 billion yen at present.

     In particular, demand for walking-support and other nursing-care robots is expected to increase noticeably. The market for them is forecast to expand from an estimated 213 million yen in fiscal 2013 through March to 2.3 billion yen in fiscal 2015 and 34.98 billion yen in fiscal 2020, according to Yano Research Institute.