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Friday, April 15, 2005


We are the robots

Special to The Japan Times

EXPO 2005 Aichi, now entering the fourth week of its 180-day run, is providing visitors with thousands of thrilling glimpses of the future. With all manner of advanced technology on show -- from humanoid robots to next-generation transportation systems -- the world of tomorrow has never felt so close.

News photo
MagLev technology in action at the site.

The EXPO's theme might be "Nature's Wisdom," but the event's most arresting feature is undoubtedly its league of robots. The event's automatons carry out a variety of tasks -- including cleaning, guarding, caring for kids and dispensing information.

The cute, mustard-yellow Wakamaru, which introduces the Mitsubishi Pavilion show (in Corporate Pavilion Zone A), is proving to be a favorite with the crowds. Yes, T-shirts are available. Wakamaru is also stationed on the reception desk at EXPO HQ (off limits to the general public, sadly), and can greet visitors in Japanese, English, Korean and Mandarin, while making appropriate gestures.

The pint-size charmer is given a run for its money by the Actroid: This lifelike reception robot does a pretty good imitation of a young Japanese woman (coy mannerisms, fluttering eyelashes and all), and can -- again -- speak four languages. It's stationed at the information centers on the North, East and West Gates; honestly, though, you'd do better to ask one of the human attendants if you've got a question that really needs answering.

Functional 'bots

Both robots are joined by some of their more functional counterparts at the Robot Station (west of Corporate Pavilion Zone A), including PaPeRo (childcare), SuiPPi (cleaning) and Mujiro Li- gurio (security). Oh, and some automated dinosaurs, the utility of which is, frankly, lost on this particular writer.

Visitors can get up close with the 'bots, and watch practical demonstrations of their abilities.

The Toyota Group Pavilion (in Corporate Pavilion Zone B) certainly has the most novel bunch of 'droids. A robot brass band, no less, kicks off the pavilion's show and, though their rendition of "When the Saints Go Marching In" may lack swing, they don't fluff a note.

Future transportation

Toyota's display also showcases another key type of technology: advanced transportation.

The main attractions in the show are the impeccably stylish "i-unit," a four-wheeled, single-person vehicle, and the chicken-like "i-foot," a mountable, walking robot. Though neither is ready for general release, they offer a tantalizing glimpse of what may lie in store in the future.

The technology on show at the JR Central Pavilion (Corporate Pavilion Zone A) puts even the Shinkansen to shame. Using superconductors, the magnetically levitated (MagLev) train on display can reach speeds of more than 500 kph -- a world record for a manned train.

The main show unravels the technology that might one day allow people to travel from Tokyo to Nagoya in 45 minutes. Mightily impressive stuff, although one can only wonder how long it will take for this particular pipedream to become a working reality.

MagLev technology

For a fully functioning -- if rather more pedestrian -- example of MagLev technology in action, check the Linimo train, which shuttles visitors between Fujigaoka subway station in Nagoya and the Nagakute and Seto sites. The Linimo is noteworthy for being Japan's first commercially operated MagLev train, though chances are it won't be the last. Raised 8 mm above the track, it makes for a smooth ride, albeit a fairly sluggish one -- twice as slow as the subway.

When traveling around the site, visitors can take advantage of other types of advanced technology such as automated, driverless buses and battery-driven, environmentally friendly transport systems. Also, eco-friendly, energy efficient Fuel Cell Hybrid Vehicle buses run to and from the Seto site. Powered by high-pressure hydrogen fuel cells and electric batteries, these can reach speeds of 80 kph, and they emit water as exhaust.

Visual treats abound

If transport technology doesn't excite you, there is still plenty to drool over at EXPO. Many of the pavilions showcase state-of-the-art visual technology, much of it nothing short of breathtaking. At Global House, in the Central Zone, visitors can experience the Laser Dream Theater -- complete with a 50x10-meter screen.

Across the Koi Pond, the Japan Pavilion Nagakute boasts the world's first perfectly spherical image system. Literally surrounding viewers, the Earth Room makes for an overwhelming experience. The same applies to the Mitsubishi Pavilion's show, whose IFX Theater employs a wraparound screen and mirrors to wholly immerse you in the experience.

At the Mitsui-Toshiba Pavilion (in Corporate Pavilion Zone B) this is taken one step further: Prior to the show, visitors have their faces scanned and converted into digitized form, allowing them, more-or-less instantly, to appear in the movie. If only as much thought had gone into the film itself as once the initial excitement wears off, it makes for a ponderous watch.

Just next-door, the Mountain of Dreams puts on a rather more engaging show. Its "Open Your Mind" display, designed by anime director Mamoru Oshii, utilizes a floor screen and multiple projection systems to create what's billed as "the first experiential space in the history of World Expositions," whatever that's supposed to mean. Never mind the empty jargon, though: Along with the aforementioned Earth Room, "Open Your Mind" does the best job of conveying the sheer majesty of nature -- which, after all, is what this year's EXPO is supposed to be about.

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