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Wednesday, Dec. 5, 2012
Japanese innovation was alive and well at Maker Faire
When talking about Japan's advanced technology, many may imagine that it's mostly developed by huge household-name firms such as NTT, Sony and Toyota. However, much of Japan's "unique" or quirky technology is developed by individuals and small groups of geeky inventors — hundreds of whom were at Maker Faire Tokyo 2012 held over the weekend.
Described as "a family-friendly festival of invention, creativity and resourcefulness, and a celebration of the Maker movement," the first Maker Faire was held in 2006 in the United States by Make, a DIY magazine, and it is now held around the world. Japan's Make magazine launched its version of the event in 2008 as Make Meeting Tokyo. This year was its first year under the name Maker Faire Tokyo.
Organizers said 250 exhibitors participated in the two-day DIY event held at the National Museum of Emerging Science and Innovation in Tokyo's Koto Ward, and it attracted around 9,000 visitors made up of families with small children to geeks of all ages, drawn to the wide variety of original inventions, many of which have not been shown elsewhere.
The fair's main attraction was undoubtedly Kuratas — a 4-meter tall, 4-legged gigantic robot whose movements can be controlled by a person from a cockpit seat, just like the fictional robots in anime such as "Gundam."
The robot was made by Kogoro Kurata, an artist and metalsmith, and Wataru Yoshizaki, a Ph.D. student at Nara Institute of Science and Technology, and was first introduced at a public event in July. Since then, the behemoth robot has been creating a buzz among robot fans around the world and people wielding digital cameras and smartphones kept crowding around the large metallic artwork to take photos.
But Kuratas was not the only futuristic invention at the event, which was filled with technology that may one day be commonplace.
Shigeyuki Hirai, an associate professor at Kyoto Sangyo University, for example, demonstrated a touch-panel that could make taking a bath more fun.
His lab's team created a bathtub touch-panel by installing sensors in the side of the tub, which users can use for bath-specific apps, icons and buttons that are projected on to the surface of the bath from a device installed above.
For example, many parents in Japan tell their kids to count to 30 before they get out of the bathtub: By using a specially designed bathtub-app kids can use a touch-sensitive button to start a digital display of numerals that counts up to 30 accompanied by a voice.
Other functions include being able to adjust the lights in the room by scrolling projected bars, playing music and turning the bathtub into novelty decks that people can play like a DJ by rubbing the side of the tub.
"The idea is to make the bath experience more active," said Hirai, adding that his lab is developing similar technology for other parts of the home and hopes to make it commercially available in the future by teaming up with manufacturers.
Another invention at the show was an application for smartphones made by Nico Nama Kikaku Hoso Kyoku (NKH) that utilizes people's smartphones to broadcast what's going on at a crime scene.
If people who have this application installed on their phones happen to be near a recently-reported major crime scene — such as a bank robbery or murder — the application will alert them that they are nearby and automatically turn on the smartphone video camera.
The video feed will then be transmitted to the police, so that they can immediately get a sense of what is happening at the scene and possibly identify the suspect.
NKH is a group established by dozens of Internet users who met through the video-sharing website Nico Nico Douga, and the group has been making their own live-streaming programs and trying to create something fun through the Internet.
Other less intrusive technologies at Maker Faire included the ANIPOV, a device made up of LED lights attached to bicycle spokes. When the wheel spins, a moving image is displayed. People can send image data to the ANIPOV, which stores it to be displayed when someone rides the bicycle. The ANIPOV was displayed by Suns and Moon Laboratory.
Other creators at the event showed off inventions that combined existing products and turned them into useful tools.
Hiroshi Takai, who runs a firm named Log film Inc. in Tokyo, presented "Low Angler No.3," which is basically the popular Roomba robot vacuum cleaner equipped with a video camera.
Takai, whose work involves making videos, said he wanted equipment that enabled him to shoot good low-angle footage. After first trying radio-controlled cars, which "were too fast," he discovered that the Roomba moved quite slowly and was not only stable, with firm tires and good suspension, but also had a smooth curving motion that could produce the kind of shots he was after.
Takai's innovative combination of existing technologies to solve a problem he'd experienced personally is what the Maker Faire is all about, and the many other enthusiastic tinkerers, hobbyists and engineers at the show proved that while many large Japanese tech companies are struggling these days, there is still hope for evermore interesting Japanese innovation in the future.