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Friday, Sep. 28, 2012

Monstrous robotic behemoth brings anime fantasies to life

Mad inventors use inspiration to build giant working robot


Staff writer

MINAMITSURU, Yamanashi Pref. — It's hard to say whether technology will ever catch up with sci-fi anime and realize an era when giant robots roam the earth, but for artist Kogoro Kurata and student Wataru Yoshizaki the future can't come soon enough.

News photo
Hands-on: Kuratas cocreator Wataru Yoshizaki gets in the cockpit to show how the robot is operated. KAZUAKI NAGATA

After roughly two years of work, the two robot fanatics have turned their animation-inspired dreams into reality — the 4-meter-tall Kuratas bot.

The robot is no mere polystyrene exhibit. The four-legged, 4-ton steel behemoth, which boasts around 30 hydraulic joints, is fully operational and can travel up to 10 kph. And just like anime robots, it has a cockpit for the "pilot" to climb into and operate it.

Japan's cutting-edge robotic technologies are renowned the world over, but the pair's creation wasn't designed to sort widgets in a factory or assist the elderly in retirement homes. Kurata describes it as an "art project" with no obvious commercial applications.

"Basically, I just wanted to build the thing, and then I wanted to get on it," Kurata, a 39-year-old Tokyo native, told The Japan Times earlier this month at his garage-cum-studio in Minamitsuru, Yamanashi Prefecture.

Kuratas was first unveiled to the public in July at the Wonder Festival held at Chiba's Makuhari Messe, where participants exhibit garage kits for handmade anime characters. The invention immediately captured the attention of robot and mecha fans.

To create buzz, a promotional video depicted the giant machine's ability to control weaponry by firing BBs via a robotic machinegun-like arm triggered by the pilot's facial expressions — in this case, a broad smile.

The robot could be yours for about ¥100 million, but despite the hefty price tag, its creators said there have been over 3,000 inquires, many from overseas.

Kurata started the project in January 2010, deciding to base it on his past efforts, such as the time in 2005 when he built a full-scale but inoperable replica of the robot featured in the cartoon series "Armored Trooper Votoms." Or his development in 2010 of a hydraulic machine that can belt out soccer balls as fast as 200 kph.

Despite the fact that he lacked a thorough blueprint, Kurata forged ahead with the project anyway.

"I've always been like this. (For instance,) I built a house simply because I wanted to — everything has been like that in my life," he said.

The Tokyoite, who also happens to be a blacksmith, said he has been hooked on building robots ever since he started making plastic replicas of them as a child. While he always wanted to make big ones, he became frustrated because no one else seemed serious about turning their dreams into reality.

"I thought somebody would make them, but nobody really has," said Kurata, who found a kindred spirit in Yoshizaki, a Ph.D. student at Nara Institute of Science and Technology, and invited him on board several months after the project started.

Kurata lacked the technical knowhow to create a computerized control system for the robot, and without a decent program, he knew it would be dangerous for the pilot.

He eventually heard about Yoshizaki, who has developed a software application to control robot movements, and asked him to take part. For Yoshizaki, a 27-year-old native of Yamaguchi Prefecture, it was a no-brainer: Like Kurata, he, too, had always wanted to build giant, fully functional robots.

"I saw my chance had finally arrived," said Yoshizaki, who until then had only used his program to control smaller models.

Yoshizaki said his V-Shido system makes operating robots easy for anyone, and enables Kuratas to be controlled remotely by an iPod Touch, as well as by voice recognition technology or motion sensors via Microsoft's Kinect game console.

"I want people to think: 'Wow! Today's technology can really achieve something like this!" Yoshizaki said.

With Yoshizaki's software knowledge, Kurata was finally able to realize his dream without outside assistance or sponsorship. All of the funds came from the two creators' wallets. Kurata declined to disclose how much it cost to build the robot, but said he was determined to avoid interference from external sponsors so he could build it exactly the way he wanted.

Kurata wanted certain things done in a certain manner, such as having more buttons than necessary in the cockpit.

News photo
It's alive!: Kogoro Kurata (right) and Wataru Yoshizaki pose with their Kuratas robot in Yamanashi on Sept. 10. KAZUAKI NAGATA

"I am 39, and for people in their 30s robots need to have a lot of buttons (to control them). Yoshizaki's system enables users to operate the robot really easily, so I kind of intentionally made it more complicated," Kurata said with a laugh.

At the same time, some features from anime just can't be replicated in real life.

Many might think huge robots should have two legs, for instance, but Kurata knew it would be difficult to keep the pilot safe in a 4-meter-tall machine that could easily fall over.

While Kuratas' inventors did not have commercial applications in mind when they built it, the pair hope the robot will be purchased by someone who can come up with suitable applications for it. To that end, Kuratas can be bought online from their officious sounding Suidobashi Heavy Industry website at www.suidobashijuko.jp.

The asking price starts at about ¥100 million, but for a little extra, Kuratas can be playfully customized. For example, a BB shooter can be added for around ¥5.5 million, a carbon shield for ¥5.8 million and a "lohas launcher" that shoots PET bottles for ¥7.8 million. Customers can also splash out on such options as a leather pilot's seat or drink holder, and have the robot painted in their color of choice.

Kurata said more than 3,000 inquiries have been received to date, far too many to process. "Selling it is not the main purpose, so we didn't really plan the process all that well," he said.

Asked what they intend to work on from this point, Kurata replied that he wants to build more giant robots to see them all lined up together, while Yoshizaki said he will continue to develop the software so it can be used in a variety of robots.

While Kurata and Yoshizaki have demonstrated that all it takes to make a huge working robot is just two people, it would turn into a whole new ball game if others succeed in commercially producing such machines.

The pair hope Kuratas will inspire and challenge others to follow their lead, and that more innovations will follow.

"In Japan, although there are a lot of people and companies with the skills or technologies to produce something cool, they don't take the initiative to make it. But when someone takes the first step and succeeds, the rest will follow. This is how things go in Japan," Kurata said. "If someone creates a more awesome robot, it will motivate me to make an even better one."



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