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From remote rehab to fitness, Japan's wearable robots adapt to crisis

Cyberdyne and Panasonic find new opportunities in avoiding the 'Three Cs'

Tetsuzo Agishi, an 86-year-old Tokyo resident, uses Cyberdyne's Hal power assist suit as part of a training regimen to improve his leg movement at home.

TOKYO -- Amid the spread of the coronavirus, Japanese manufacturers of robotic power assist suits, also known as wearable robotics, which support bodily movements, are developing a market driven by demand for avoiding the "three Cs" -- closed spaces with insufficient ventilation, crowded conditions with many people and conversations at short distance.

Cyberdyne in Tsukuba, northeast of Tokyo, has started a service renting a device that helps elderly people exercise at home to improve their bodily functions. A subsidiary of Panasonic in Osaka Prefecture has developed a remote fitness regimen in which users wear the company's power assist suit. The companies aim to expand uses for their products to help boost profits.

Tetsuzo Agishi, an 86-year-old Tokyo resident, has used Cyberdyne's Hal power assist suit at home since late April. The former doctor underwent an operation to treat spinal canal stenosis, a disease that causes narrowing of the spinal canal, which holds the spinal cord and nerve roots, typically causing pins and needles in the legs and back pain. He has walked with a limp ever since. After doing an exercise regimen using the device, he has recovered to a degree where he now can move his legs in a normal walking motion. He can now walk to a nearby park.

"Now I can finally feel like I can do it," Agishi said.

The Hal is capable of detecting electrical signals that the brain sends to the muscles and supports bodily movements in response. Cyberdyne has been renting the device to hospitals and nursing facilities. It also provides three-month training regimens that are tailored to users. The service costs about 250,000 yen ($2,400). Twenty Hal units are currently in use, and the company aims to increase the figure to 100 by this fall.

Three Cs are becoming an established part of people's lives amid the COVID-19 pandemic. This has created demand for power assist suits in unexpected areas outside of nursing facilities.

Pinos Keihanna, a gym in Seika, Kyoto Prefecture, has started using the Himico robotic assist suit in a workout program.

Pinos Keihanna, a gym in the town of Seika, Kyoto Prefecture, uses power assist suits developed by Atoun, a Panasonic subsidiary in Nara, for a remote workout program. It initially purchased three units of the Himico model and started using them for in-person lessons in June.

Under the program, users wearing the suit work out for 20 minutes, doing such motions as lunging by spreading legs, with one forward and the other back. Sensors attached to the device detect the angle of the legs and send the information to the instructor's smartphone. Using that information, the instructor can, for example, advise the users to spread their legs wider.

"I was able to move my body effectively in just a short time," said Masako Matsushita, 65, who participated in the program.

The gym has seen the number of visitors decrease 30% on weekdays and 10% on weekends compared to before the coronavirus hit.

"Going forward, we'll basically operate on the basis that we'll have to avoid the Three Cs," said Kazuya Kita, who heads the facility.

The gym now plans to introduce a remote program using a video conferencing system.

Atoun plans to provide a remote fitness system to corporate customers starting in 2021, aiming to capture the demand demonstrated by Pinos Keihanna.

Tokyo research company Fuji Keizai estimates sales of power assist suits totaled 3.6 billion yen in Japan in 2019. However, sales have not increased as much as manufacturers hoped, impeded by the high costs of the devices, typically several hundred thousand yen per unit.

Innophys, a Tokyo startup launched by Tokyo University of Science researchers, has a possible solution. The company introduced a model with a more affordable price tag of a little less than 150,000 yen last November. The Muscle Suit Every has sold over 12,000 units thanks to the use of air pressure to provide assisting power, which contributed to lowering costs. The model is sold through multiple channels, including a major online retailer. The company expects growing demand for it especially in nursing care.

"In Japan, development of products supporting hip movement has especially advanced," said Ishii Chiharu, a professor at Tokyo's Hosei University. "The [Japanese] products have the potential to win popularity internationally."

Still, even Cyberdyne, the most prominent power assist suit manufacturer, has yet to turn a profit since listing in 2014. The key for the manufacturers is to secure profit by expanding sales channels, taking advantage of opportunities that have emerged amid the coronavirus pandemic, as well as improving their technology.

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