Toyota has unveiled the latest two creations from its robot project, including one that can play the violin, and said it is targeting the early 2010s for the development of a viable human-assistance robot.
The two new machines are the Mobiro, a sort of motorised wheelchair that can scoot people around their neighbourhood and is able to cope with uneven surfaces, and the Violin-Playing Robot. Toyota has already developed a robot capable of playing the trumpet, so with a little extra effort the company could soon have an entire band.
Like the Segway transporter, the Mobiro runs on two wheels and manages to maintain its balance. This distinguishes it from other forms of motorised transport tested so far for human use. The Mobiro rider sits in a chair and manipulates the robot through controls in the chair's arm rests. It can cope with 10 degree slopes and turn on the spot.
Perhaps more interestingly, it will automatically approach its owner when called by a remote control, avoiding obstacles in its path on the way. The Mobiro can also be used to carry cargo or other people and in this mode it automatically follows its owner or keeps a few steps ahead of them.
The 150kg Mobiro has a 20-kilometre range and field tests will begin in the second half of 2008.
The Violin-Playing Robot may have an unimaginative name but it's capable of some pretty impressive musical moves. The robot can hold the violin in place with one hand and move the bow with its other to produce a perfect-sounding tune. It can also move the fingers of its left hand, which rest at the violin's neck, to produce a tremolo effect.
It stands 1.5 metres tall and weighs 56 kilograms, which puts it not far off the height and weight of an average Japanese woman.
At a Tokyo news conference to unveil the new robots, Toyota also showed its Robina robot, which made its first public appearance in the middle of this year. The Robina is designed for face-to-face communication with humans. In that role, the robot served as a guide at the Toyota Kaikan Exhibition Hall in Toyota City in August this year.
The robot can automatically navigate a route through obstacles and, by holding a pen in one hand and a piece of card in the other, sign its signature on the card.
Toyota is one of many Japanese companies actively investigating robotics and the areas that go hand-in-hand with the technology, such as artificial intelligence. While violin playing and autograph signing may appear to be nothing more than whimsical tricks they require a high level of mechanical and electrical control and are the kind of tasks that engineers need to perfect before they take the next step towards human assistance.
Japan 's rapidly aging society is providing the push behind all these projects.