We’ve all tried Google Street View before, but what if you could explore the world and see faraway places through the eyes of a roving machine?
At the recent Combined Exhibition of Advanced Technologies (CEATEC) outside Tokyo, telepresence robots equipped with displays showing their remote users were turning heads on the show floor. These simple machines are basically webcams on wheels, but they formed a striking example of how a system that combines hardware in the physical world with online users and cloud-based artificial intelligence will become part of everyday life.
Robots that teleport your consciousness
Akira Fukabori, director of ANA HOLDINGS INC.’s Avatar Division, shows off an all-terrain Avatar robot at CEATEC 2019.
Developed by OhmniLabs and ANA HOLDINGS INC., the parent company of All Nippon Airways, the newme Avatar telepresence robots are up to 150 cm tall and roll around on a wheeled base at speeds up to 2.9 kph. They’re topped by a 10.1-inch display showing a remote user, who can view the robot’s surroundings via its embedded full-HD 2K camera. The company says the robots are a new way to connect people and will allow elderly and disabled people to expand their social participation. It plans to deploy 1,000 of the robots by summer 2020. At CEATEC 2019, the company also showed off an all-terrain, bipedal version of the avatar robot that can walk through forests and into remote locations.
“The idea behind this is that you don’t need to teleport your body, just your consciousness,” says Akira Fukabori, director of ANA HOLDINGS INC.’s Avatar Division. “If you have a physical limitation, you can just teleport your consciousness and you have a new body, and you can communicate and expand your abilities. This is the kind of mobility that we want to introduce to the world.”
Building a next-generation society
Drawing large crowds to their booth, the newme Avatar robots were in a section of the CEATEC trade show called Society 5.0 Town. Located at the very heart of the show, the town was made up of exhibitors developing mechanisms that will help people in a new age of cyber-physical integration. This concept of the future follows historical periods of development based on hunting and gathering, agriculture, industry, and information. Japan’s Cabinet Office offers one definition as follows: “A human-centered society that balances economic advancement with the resolution of social problems by a system that highly integrates cyberspace and physical space.” For CEATEC, which marked its 20th anniversary in 2019, that vision of the future goes hand-in-hand with the exhibition’s overall theme of connecting society and co-creating the future.
“Our mission is to illustrate this ultra-smart society, and we are proudly announcing that CEATEC is a showcase for Society 5.0,” says Kiyoshi Shikano, executive producer in the CEATEC Organizing Committee, which hosts CEATEC.
“Our mission is to illustrate this ultra-smart society, and we are proudly announcing that CEATEC is a showcase for Society 5.0,” says Kiyoshi Shikano, executive producer in the CEATEC Organizing Committee, which hosts the exhibition. “This is important because Japan is the most advanced country in terms of the problem of aging societies, and the Japanese electronics industry is not expected to grow as it did in the first decade of this century.”
Shikano points to a number of other exhibitors that joined the Society 5.0 Town in Makuhari Messe in Chiba City, the venue for CEATEC. These include transportation, banking and construction companies, and they’re another sign of how CEATEC has evolved over the past 20 years from a consumer electronics show into a more comprehensive collection of technologies that can have a social impact. Even leading Japanese toymaker Bandai is collaborating with smaller companies such as hobby company Kondo Kagaku to create educational a line of Zeonic Technics kit robots inspired by the Mobile Suit Gundam anime. Part of the STEM education movement, the kits can help young hobby enthusiasts learn programming and robotics skills and may help foster future roboticists who can change the world.
The Combined Exhibition of Advanced Technologies (CEATEC) celebrated its 20th year in 2019, and now includes a broad range of technologies and exhibitors.
At CEATEC, toymaker Bandai showed off kit robots that can help young hobby enthusiasts learn programming and robotics skills.
From smart cities to smart sensors
Another example of how CEATEC is changing is exhibitor Obayashi Corporation, one of Japan’s largest general construction firms. It has built everything from dams to hospitals to TOKYO SKYTREE, the world’s tallest free-standing broadcasting tower. At CEATEC, however, Obayashi was showing off smart office technology that improves efficiency and helps building users feel more comfortable, as well as smart city technology that supports urban development and management.
In a nine-story complex in central Tokyo named oak kanda kaji-chou, Obayashi’s WellnessBOX system monitors users as well as the office building itself. Users carry locator beacons and can notify WellnessBOX if the room temperature is uncomfortable; it responds by adjusting the air conditioning. The system can also provide information about whether restroom stalls are vacant and whether users have been sitting down at their desks for too long.
“We believe our platforms can contribute to people’s wellbeing,” says Emiko Tsuchiya, a manager in Obayashi’s Smart City Promotion Department.
“In addition to this, our BIMWill and SCIM platforms can accumulate massive amounts of data and recreate buildings and cities as digital twins for various simulations, and we provide comprehensive building and city services from design to construction to management,” says Emiko Tsuchiya, a manager in Obayashi’s Smart City Promotion Department. “We believe our platforms can contribute to people’s wellbeing, and we are looking for companies to collaborate with us with an eye to expanding these smart office and smart city services as part of Society 5.0.”
Origin Wireless is one of several foreign companies with cyber-physical system (CPS) products and services that have decided to invest in the Japanese market. Based in Greenbelt, Maryland, Origin Wireless develops wireless sensing technologies based on Wi-Fi radio signals. These technologies include the world’s first centimeter-accuracy indoor positioning system. Its Wireless AI platform can be used to monitor everything from elderly people who are living alone to sleep quality and falls to detecting presence at warehouses, conference rooms and parking spots. Origin Wireless is currently developing this business in Japan by refining the technology and licensing software to partners.
Aside from solutions such as robots, smart buildings and wireless technology, CEATEC is also an opportunity for Japanese electronics parts makers to strut their stuff. Japan plays a leading role in supply chains for everything from rechargeable batteries to image sensors for mobile devices used by consumers around the world.
One such supplier is Kyoto-based Murata Manufacturing. It won the CEATEC Minister of Economy, Trade and Industry Award for developing an oxide solid-state battery that has nearly the same voltage as an ordinary lithium-ion battery but with a capacity of 2mAh to 25mAh, the highest in the industry. Varying in size from 5mm to 10mm square with a height of 2mm to 6mm, the compact battery could help support CPS applications by powering wearable and Internet of Things (IoT) devices. Murata created the battery based on technology developed in Sony’s battery division, which it acquired in 2017. The company plans to begin small-scale production in 2020.
“Aside from its capacity, the battery is extremely safe because the oxide-ceramic electrolyte does not use flammable materials,” says Keisuke Shimizu, a project leader in Murata’s Energy Devices Division. “It’s stable at high temperatures, and it can be integrated with other components in a compact format. That means it could be used for IoT sensors in high-temperature environments in factories or outdoors, as well as wearable devices used for other purposes.”
Tiny components will continue to be key in tomorrow’s workplaces, but sensors, smart buildings and avatar robots are only a few elements of CPS technologies in Society 5.0. Cutting-edge computer systems will play a much greater role in the development of a human-centered society that can address issues such as aging populations. Shikano notes: “Society 5.0 requires us to solve these problems for people’s lives and industry. For this, we need new technologies based on cyber-physical systems.”
Murata Manufacturing won the CEATEC Minister of Economy, Trade and Industry Award for an oxide solid-state battery that could help support CPS applications by powering wearable and IoT devices.
Click on the links below to learn more about the technological seeds for the future.
To learn more about Society 5.0, click here.
To learn more about CEATEC, click here.
To learn more about ANA’s Avatar program, click here.
To learn more about Obayashi, click here.
To learn more about Origin Wireless, click here.
To learn more about Murata, click here.