Posts Tagged ‘sci-tech’


Panasonic Unveils Their New Head-Massage Robot

October 30, 2012

At Japan Robot Week 2012, Panasonic presented their new head-therapy massager robot, using recently developed robotic hand technology.

The device scans the user’s head to create a 3-D image, which is used to position the robot’s arms and 24 fingers, ensuring a comfortable fit. Panasonic intends to offer the head therapy unit together with its massage chairs, which have been on sale for several years already, as a ‘whole body care’ system.


Although the unit on exhibit here was being presented mainly as a massage product, Panasonic had already put it through field trials this past spring in a hair salon in Hyogo Prefecture, where it shampooed, conditioned, rinsed and dried customers’ hair, in addition to providing scalp massages. Sensors built into the unit were designed to detect differences in head shape and hair volume, and adjust performance accordingly. The video below includes English captions and narration.


Panasonic had earlier presented the robot in its hair-washing version at the 2010 Home Care and Rehabilitation Exhibition:



Japan Takes the 2011 Ig Nobel Chemistry Prize for Wasabi Fire Alarm

October 19, 2011

Earlier this month, an annual tradition continued at Harvard’s Sanders Theater, where the science/humor magazine Annals of Improbable Research handed out its Ig Nobel Awards, in recognition of achievements “that make people laugh, and then make them think.”

The Chemistry prize at the 21st First Annual (sic) awards ceremony went to a Japanese research team, led by Asst. Professor Makoto Imai of the Shiga University of Medical Science and Dr. Junichi Murakami of Biwako Hospital in Shiga Prefecture, for their work in developing a “wasabi-based fire alarm.” While the work may sound a bit silly at first blush (as does the work of many of the other prize recipients), I think it’s worth taking a closer look to see the motivation behind his research and the actual benefits it has led to.

Prof. Imai holds up his Ig Nobel Prize

Via the Boston Herald

Imai and the rest of the team receiving their prize at the 2011 Ig Nobel ceremony at Sanders Theater, Harvard. (set to skip ahead to the Chemistry Prize, but the whole ceremony is well worth watching)

This project first began in 2000, when Prof. Imai looked into the question of how to make a fire alarm that can be reliably detected by the hearing impaired. The elderly make up over 50% of deaths in house fires in Japan, and it has been hypothesized that inability to hear traditional smoke alarms may contribute to this figure. Standard alarms using loud sirens would of course go unnoticed, and flashing lights (often included with the alarms used in newer apartment buildings) were often found to be completely ineffective at waking up sleeping residents. This was when Imai and his team decided to start looking at less conventional directions.

Inside the wasabi smoke alarm

Vibrations had been tried, but this approach suffers from a number of practical problems, not least of which was the issue of how to rig an entire apartment to vibrate strongly enough that it could be reliably noticed. Even when restricted to just making the bed shake, anyone who’s used a vibrating cell phone knows how easy it is to simply not notice it. To effectively grab attention, Imai and his co-researchers decided to tap into our sense of smell.

With the backing of the Seems company, a research firm focusing on fragrance-based sensors and other medical tools, the team experimented with with a wide range of aromatic chemicals, ranging from the pleasant to the putrid. But according to Imai, even some of the most revolting of smells seemed to have little effect: “We tried a rotten egg smell, but subjects didn’t wake up.”

Imai (L) and Murakami with their award

Via Chuunichi News

The aroma with the most success turned out to be allyl isothiocyanate, an irritant responsible for the  pungent taste of wasabi, horseradish and varieties of mustard. In nature, the plants produce the chemical as a defense against herbivores, but for Imai’s team its nose- and throat-stinging properties made it ideal for rousing sleepers in the event of fire.

In 2006, clinical tests were started at Biwako Hosiptal, where 31 volunteers were repeatedly allowed to go to sleep, then had the allyl isothiocyanate aerosol sprayed into their rooms as researchers tested which concentrations produced the most reliable results (the chemical can also be an eye irritant much like tear gas or pepper spray, so presumably the team didn’t want to use such a high concentration that subjects were unable to find their way out once they’d woken up). A spray of 5-20ppm was found to wake up nearly every test subject within 2 minutes.

Diagram from Imai's patent for the alarm system

The system has already been installed in a number of facilities for the deaf in Japan, and it is scheduled for commercial release within the next two years.

As a side note, Japanese researchers and inventors have been regulars at the Ig Nobel ceremonies almost since they began, so I’m planning on writing a series of articles highlighting each of their accomplishments. If I don’t, leave a note in the comments telling me to move my butt.

Additional reference:

Annals of Improbable Research, Ig Nobel Winners List

Patent for the wasabi smoke detector

NTV News24 – “イグ・ノーベル賞の今井講師が喜びの会見” (with embedded video) 2011 Oct 4

Chuunichi News – “「いつかノーベル賞を」 イグ・ノーベル賞受賞の今井氏ら会見” 2011 Oct 5

Kyodo News – “Japanese team wins Ig Nobel award for ‘wasabi alarm’” 2011 Sep 30:

MSN/Sankei News – “イグ・ノーベル賞の滋賀医科大今井講師 帰国会見で感謝” 2011 Oct 5:

Seems Corporation homepage


The Grenade-Bot: Coming Through a Window Near You

August 1, 2011

The Technical Research and Development Institute (TRDI), part of Japan’s Ministry of Defense and roughly an analogue to America’s DARPA, recently released information on one of the new devices being worked on at their Advanced Technology Development Center:  the 手投げ式偵察ロボット, or Thrown Reconnaissance Robot.

About the size and shape of a hand grenade, this device is designed to be thrown into buildings that may be too dangerous for soldiers to investigate themselves. Once inside, the device opens up to reveal a small camera, which can then relay what it sees to the soldiers waiting outside using a hand-held viewer. The robot can also be driven and steered throughout the building (though stairs will likely pose a problem), while the camera continues to transmit a stable image.

Left: The remote viewscreen; Center: the robot in its carried and thrown state; Right: the robot in its traveling state, with drive wheels extended and camera exposed.

The test video below shows how well it can steer around obstacles and maintain a clear, steady camera image. [Note: the audio in this video is mostly static, so I recommend turning the sound off.]

According to TRDI, the concept behind this design is to develop robots that are compact and lightweight enough that soldiers can carry them as part of their standard equipment. I would imagine that making them sturdy and reliable enough to handle being thrown around would also greatly improve the battlefield utility of future robot designs.



JR Tokai Chooses Station Sites for Future Maglev Line

June 9, 2011

JR Tokai (Central Japan Rail), which manages train lines more-or-less between Shizuoka and Aichi prefectures (as well as the shinkansen from Tokyo to Osaka), recently announced station sites for their planned high-speed magnetic levitation (maglev) line.

JR Maglev on its test track in Yamanashi

Photo via JR Tokai

The line will begin in Shinagawa in south downtown Tokyo (where there is already a shinkansen station), head to Sagamihara in Kanagawa prefecture (a fair bit north of Yokohama), then to Kofu in Yamanashi prefecture and Nakatsugawa in Gifu prefecture before arriving near Nagoya. Running at speeds of up to 500kph, the new line is projected to cover the 286km route in as little as 40 minutes (current shinkansen take about 90 minutes to go from Tokyo to Nagoya, and standard local trains take roughly 6+ hours).

The environmental assessment of the proposed route is expected to take about three years, after which construction is scheduled to start in 2014. The route will use the 48km test track already built in Yamanashi prefecture, and JR Tokai projects the total cost will be about 5.1 trillion yen, or about US$60 billion (although confidence in predicting the cost of a 300-km, decade-long construction project seems laughable. My guess: take that figure and triple it).

I’m torn on this. On the one hand, ultra-high-speed levitating trains are quite possibly the coolest thing I could hope to see in my lifetime. On the other, this is a hell of a lot money to be spending on a massive project that provides only an incremental benefit over the (also extremely expensive to build) system already in place. Plus, the current plan only connects two cites. I’ve been to Sagamihara and Kofu; they are not bustling metropoli by any stretch of the imagination (while Sagamihara could be called close to Yokohama, the fastest train connecting them takes 35 minutes, longer than the maglev trip from Sagamihara to Nagoya). Some sources have estimated that simply converting the existing Tokaido shinkansen, linking Tokyo to Nagoya along the coast, would cost only one-tenth as much.

While I would love to zoom through the mountains at over 500kph, I can’t help thinking there are better uses for the money. Developing low-speed (~100kph) maglev for mass inter- and intra-city use would be a good start, as their lack of moving parts translates to lower maintenance costs, and they produce far less noise or pollution. This has already been achieved with the Linimo line near Nagoya, although because the line doesn’t connect major population centers (it was built for the 2005 World Expo and links the park with outer Nagoya), current ridership is low. Still, going this route could turn an incredibly expensive prestige project that few would use on a regular basis into an actual money-maker with wide-spread support.


Satoshi Furukawa Heads for the ISS aboard Soyuz

June 8, 2011

JAXA, Japan’s space agency announced this morning that the launch of the Soyuz spacecraft (27S/TMA-02M) from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan was a success. Furukawa is part of a three-member crew, joining American Michael Fossum from NASA, and Russian Sergey Volkov from the FSA. This is Furukawa’s first mission, Volkov’s second, and Fossum’s third.

The craft will dock with the ISS, where the three will be joining long-term expedition 28 with Russians Andrei Borisenko, Aleksandr Samokutyayev and American Ron Garan. They will then start expedition 29, which will last until December, giving them over five months in space.

Mission patch for TMA02M


Elements 114 and 116 Confirmed

June 8, 2011

The International Union of Pure and Applied Chemistry released an announcement yesterday confirming the existence of elements 114 and 116. Researchers collaborating  from Lawrence-Livermore in California and Dubna in Russia had announced their discoveries in 2004 and 2006, but only now has the IUPAC determined that their results meet the criteria to be considered new elements.

While still in their unconfirmed status, the elements were referred to as Ununquaduim (1-1-4-ium)  and Ununhexium (1-1-6-ium), but now the researchers will be applying for official names to be given. Over the last few decades the trend has been to name new elements after pioneers in nuclear physics (Meitnerium, Mendelevium, Bohrium) or important research centers (Dubnium, Lawrencium, Darmstadtium). #112 was dubbed Copernicium, so perhaps we’ll see a Gallileum or Newtonium.

This confirmation means there will be gaps in the periodic table at 113 and 115, as there have not yet been enough observations of Ununtrium and Ununpentium to meet the IUPAC’s criteria.

Interestingly, 114 (or more specifically, isotope Uuq-298) is theorized to be a potential ‘island of stability’, with a half-life significantly longer than elements and isotopes surrounding it. So far, the most stable example observed has had a half-life of 2.6 seconds, although an possible isomer (an isotope of the same weight and structure, but with nucleons in a higher-energy state) may have a half-life of just over a minute. In comparison, the most stable observed example of 116 is Uuh-293, with a half-life of just 60 milliseconds.


Update (2012 Oct 9): Elements 114 and 116 have been given the names Flerovium (after Russian scientist Georgy Flyorov) and Livermorium (after the Lawrnce Livermore National Laboratory in California), respectively. The names were officially decided on earlier this year.