The Fascinating Humanoid Robots of iREX 2015

A life-like Leonardo da Vinci droid was among the head-turning humanoids of iREX 2015.

Photo Caption: This Leonardo da Vinci android, which was on display at iREX 2015, is powered by an air compressor and controlled by a human operator. (Photos: Tim Hornyak)

If you love robots, the International Robot Exhibition (iREX) in Tokyo is one of the coolest trade shows in the world. This month saw the biggest-ever edition of the biannual show, with 446 companies and organizations in 1,882 booths on the floor at Tokyo Big Sight.

iREX has a heavy emphasis on industrial robots, and some are simply spectacular - at one of the most popular exhibits, a super heavy duty industrial arm from automation giant Fanuc was hoisting a 1,200-kilogram car high in the air above awestruck visitors.

But in another section of the show dedicated to service robots, a different kind of robot ruled: humanoids.

Japanese robot developers have long held a strong fascination with anthropomorphic robots. Influenced by depictions of friendly, heroic humanoids in science fiction (think Astro Boy), engineers here have created marvels such as Honda’s Asimo, arguably the most advanced humanoid robot despite being first unveiled 15 years ago.

While Asimo has never been offered for sale, Pepper is a full-sized humanoid that is on the market. Developed by Aldebaran Robotics of France, Pepper has hands, arms and a wheeled platform and is designed to be a communications robot for home and business. Batches of 1,000 Peppers have been selling out since last June when the robot was launched by Japanese mobile carrier SoftBank for about 200,000 yen plus monthly fees.


At iREX, kids, adults and seniors lined up for the chance to sit at laptops connected to a handful of Peppers and make them do simple things like wave an arm based on commands send via graphical user interface. SoftBank was trying to show visitors how easy it is to program Pepper, a company staffer said, adding that many had already seen it in shops or at events but had never done a hands-on experience. 

Nearby, electronics maker Sharp was showing off its novel smartphone that’s also a mini-humanoid that can actually walk around. The cartoonish RoBoHon is 19.5 cm tall, weighs 390 grams and has 3G, LTE and Wi-Fi connectivity. In phone mode, its arms swing up and you can hold it up to your ear – but be prepared to get some puzzled looks. RoBoHon’s other features include a low-res 2-inch QVGA screen, voice recognition for menu commands and a projector function to show images taken with its camera. Sharp hasn’t said when it might be launched.

Tomotaka Takahashi and his creation, RoBoHon.

“I saw people carrying their smartphones around and thought that would be a great idea to combine with a robot,” said designer Tomotaka Takahashi, whose other anime-inspired creations include Kirobo, an astro-droid that traveled to the International Space Station in 2013.

Among the other pint-sized humanoids at iREX were Palro and Palmi, developed by telecommunications and software firm Fujisoft. Both can walk around, hold conversations with users and run applications connected to the Internet. While the 298,000 yen Palmi is aimed at households and kids, the more sophisticated 670,000 yen Palro is for use in seniors’ homes. It’s already being used in dozens of care facilities in Japan, where it tries to engage residents in verbal entertainment and calisthenics routines. Somewhat cheaper is the 138,000 yen Premaid AI from DMM, a 46-centimeter-tall, smartphone-controlled hobby robot that can do dance routines.

Palro (left) and Palmi

Some of the most head-turning machines at iREX were also the most human-like. Japan has pushed forward with developing androids – robots that look and move as much as possible like humans – because of the belief that they’ll be more readily accepted compared to mechanical-looking bots. Some have been trialed as receptionists and exhibit attendants. Others, are designed to inspire, such as a lifelike (but Japanese-speaking) Leonardo da Vinci android, with a bald pate and flowing white beard. It’s powered by an air compressor and controlled by a human operator.

“Leonardo was not only a painter, but an inventor, so we want kids everywhere to learn about that through this android,” said Masakazu Yakata, an executive with an Osaka NPO behind the project.

Yakata wouldn’t say how much it cost to build the robo-artist, which can interact with visitors by projecting its controller’s voice, but said the consortium that created it used basically the same technology as Cocoro, a division of Hello Kitty licensing company Sanrio that was demoing one of its androids at iREX. The Actroid has smooth skin, lustrous eyes and seems to look around the room in an uncannily manner. You could easily be fooled, if only for a second, that it’s the real thing.

Humanoid robots exhibited by Japan’s state-backed New Energy and Industrial Technology Development Organization (NEDO), however, had a completely different design approach. These are rescue robots designed to help out in disasters like the 2011 meltdown at the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear power plant.

Hydra, powered by a hydrogen fuel cell and hydraulic system, Jaxon, which uses open-source software, and HRP2Kai, which is coordinated enough to mimic traditional Japanese dancing, participated in the 2012-2015 DARPA Robotics Challenge (DRC). While their exterior appearances ranged from the very mechanical (Hyra) to sleek sci-fi lines (HRP2Kai), they all drew large crowds at iREX as they demonstrated abilities such as picking up trusses barring the way.

“Because disasters happen so infrequently, we must ensure that the robots applied in disasters are used in something else, maybe construction or inspection,” said Gill Pratt, a former DARPA program manager who headed the DRC, told a forum at iREX. “There needs to be continuous improvement, or kaizen, because we never know when the disaster will occur.”

About the Author

Tim Hornyak · Tim Hornyak is a freelance science and technology journalist based in Tokyo. Born in Montreal, Hornyak moved to Japan in 1999 and worked for Japanese news organizations before coauthoring guidebooks to Japan and Tokyo for Lonely Planet. He is also the author of Loving the Machine: The Art and Science of Japanese Robots. He has worked as Tokyo correspondent for IDG News, producing articles and videos for websites such as Computerworld, Macworld and Networkworld, and has contributed to media such as Scientific American, National Geographic News and MIT Technology Review.
Contact Tim Hornyak:  ·  View More by Tim Hornyak.
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