The recognition of leisure robots is rising amid a pandemic

The Gundam warrior robot in Yokogama’s Ymahita Habor is a major attraction for Japanese sci-fi fans.

Photo: Tim Hornyak

When Boston Dynamics released its latest video of its robots defying gravity, this time dancing to The Contours “Cont You Love Me,” the internet was excited. A YouTube clip of Atlas and Spot robots moving with balletical fluidity has generated over 23 million views and countless warnings since Dec. 30 that the Terminator series Skynet is approaching. Boston Dynamics, which Hyundai Motor Group is acquiring from SoftBank Group, makes robots that are not only practical but also fun.

Robots that have long been used by companies like Walt Disney Imagineering are performing as entertainers, despite the introduction of different types of robots in the Covid-19 pandemic, which in a variety of ways to fight the virus and to help society and the economy can contribute – from providing automation in factories and warehouses to working as medical assistants in hospitals and nursing homes. As the world turns to vaccines and reopening economies, intelligent machines will play an increasingly public role as entertainers. According to the International Federation of Robotics (IFR), entertainment robots as a market could grow 10% annually through 2023 as more public venues include machines that don’t get tired, get sick, or need to be quarantined.

The IFR classifies entertainment robots as a type of service robot, a broad category that encompasses everything from hospital delivery droids to edutainment robotic toys. The category grew 32% from $ 8.5 billion to $ 11.2 billion in 2019. Entertainment robot sales rose 13% to 4.6 million units in 2019, with a potential growth of 10% to 5 , 1 million units in 2020 and 6.7 million units in 2023. according to IFR.

Robot popular in Japan

One country that is making great strides in this emerging market is Japan, known for its skills in robotics. In 2018, Japan was the world’s leading manufacturer of industrial robots, supplying 52% of global supply according to the IFR. Japan has actively committed itself to robotics as its population shrinks, its workforce shrinks, and the coronavirus pandemic makes human interaction difficult.

Companies in Japan recently unveiled a giant robot that can move its arms and legs and appear to be walking. The machine is nearly 60 feet tall and about half the height of the copper Statue of Liberty. It is inspired by the science fiction series by Gundam and attracts fans in Japan and on the internet.

Just south of Tokyo, the Gundam Factory Yokohama recently opened as the culmination of a long-term project to build a life-size, mobile version of the Mobile Suit Gundam’s title robot. Yoshiyuki Tomino’s hugely successful anime franchise spawned a merchandise empire that now has annual sales of approximately 78 billion yen ($ 758 million). The series is a sprawling science fiction epic in which humans control giant robots in a space war. While other representations of Gundam robots have been erected since 2009, the one in Yokohama is the result of the Gundam Global Challenge (GGC), an attempt to create a giant, full-size robot that can walk.

When it’s showtime, the Gundam robot appears to slowly step forward, bend its knees, and then get up on a launch pad for a rocket. Bathed in mist and dramatic light, it raises its arms while touching music fills the air. The 25-ton colossus appears to take off over the port city at dusk, but never leaves its supporting portal. The whole setup is a sophisticated sound and light show to create the illusion that the Gundam robot has been kind of brought to life. And that’s good enough for legions of fans who pay 1,650 yen ($ 16) to see it from the ground or 3,300 yen ($ 32) to access the portal.

“The sight of the 18-meter giant run was a surprise that I had never seen in my life,” says a Gundam fan, who is nicknamed Yokkun and asks for anonymity. “It’s like you’re a crew member on the [Gundam spaceship] White base. You won’t get bored no matter how many times you see it. Going up the tower for a close up is a must. “

“No one has ever seen an 18-meter-long Gundam statue move like this, and I think that’s very important,” said Yasuo Miyakawa, associate director of GGC and CEO of Bandai Namco, the nearly 700 million Gundam model kits The decades since the series debuted in 1979. “It’s a new form of entertainment, showing what was created in the anime – that is, the world that is seen in the videos – is closer to reality . “

In a message to the fans, director Tomino apologized that the huge machine could not run due to its large mass. Nevertheless, fans have come to see the “moving Gundam”, to take photos, to have something to eat in the hotel’s own café and of course to buy goods in the souvenir shop, which even sells model kits of the Yokohama Gundam and its portal. A showroom details how nine Japanese companies came together to build the robot, including contractor Kawada Group who assembled the portal, industrial robot manufacturer Yaskawa Electric who made the motors and control units, and engineering firm Nabtesco who made the reduction gears provided get the gundam moving.

Serve food, drink and laugh

Robots as a point of attraction for guests and tourists are establishing themselves in Asia. Tokyo’s Robot Restaurant was built in 2012 by the Morishita Group at a cost of around 10 billion yen ($ 125 million) and was regularly packed with tourists and locals seeing performers mess around with robotic dinosaurs, LED-lit tanks, and other gadgets a 90-minute cabaret with sensory overload.

While the coronavirus forced the temporary closure of the Robot Restaurant, other companies are mobilizing droids despite and even because of the pandemic. Last summer, a subsidiary of real estate developer Country Garden Holdings opened a restaurant complex in Guangdong Province, China, operated by 20 robots, some of which feature colorful designs and cartoonish faces. Aside from the novelty factor of being machine operated, the facility minimizes human contact and possible infection. In addition, the robots can prepare meals such as hot pot and pasta dishes from a menu with hundreds of choices in just 20 seconds. The company bills the 21,500-square-foot complex with a capacity for nearly 600 people as the world’s first of its kind and announced plans to expand it to produce around 5,000 restaurant robots per year.

In 2019, developers unveiled Gyeongnam Masan Robot Land in South Korea, to be marketed as the first robot theme park of its kind. Robot Land cost around $ 700 million to build and took 10 years to build. It offers 22 rides, 11 other facilities, research and development and convention centers, as well as around 250 robots that do everything from assembly line work to synchronized dances.

The entrance of Gyeongnam Masan Robot Land in South Korea.

Source: Star Networks

Robots also entertain people in much smaller spaces. Toy-like devices like Sony’s Aibo robot dog have won fans for decades, while SoftBank Robotics’ pintsized humanoid NAO, used in the Standard Platform League of the international RoboCup soccer tournament, also does stand-up comedy. Introduced during the pandemic, Moxie is a $ 1,499 tabletop robot embodied by the Californian startup that is designed to help children ages 5 to 10 develop their social skills through fun interaction. Backed by investors such as Amazon, Intel, Sony and Toyota, Embodied is led by Paolo Pirjanian, who said in a blog post by Toyota AI Ventures, “Moxie allows kids to play meaningful games every day with content informed about the best practices in the world child development and early childhood education. “

A humanoid NAO robot developed by Softbank Corp. subsidiary Aldebaran Robotics SA.

Kiyoshi Ota | Bloomberg | Getty Images

Large industrial robot manufacturers also rely on entertainment robots. The German KUKA produces industrial robot arms that can be used to assemble cars, trains, solar panels and other vehicles and infrastructures. But it has also worked with partners like Milan-based beverage maker Makr Shakr to create a fully automated cocktail bar called Toni. The two robot arms reach for beverage ingredients embedded in the ceiling, shake and stir before the finished cocktail is placed on the counter. Toni is considered the world’s first robot bar for the mass market and can serve up to 80 drinks an hour. Industrial robots can also be used for more hands-on experience.

“Our portfolio includes robot-based rides,” says spokeswoman Teresa Fischer, referring to the KUKA Coaster, which can whirl people around in the air. “Here, KUKA offers special robots that have been specially developed for the transport of passengers. They combine the options of action-packed entertainment with the high demands on safety when working with people. In this way, a wide variety of trips can be made to measure, for example in Amusement and theme parks. “

Joanne Pransky, a California-based robotics expert who helped KUKA launch the coaster, notes that many people already spend more time talking to a device than other people. She sees great potential for robots as entertainers.

“Worldwide, the acceptance and use of robotics has particularly catapulted due to Covid and the lack of available people,” says Pransky, who also claims to be the world’s first robotics psychiatrist. “The increasing public acceptance of robots, coupled with the exponential technological increase in the capabilities of robots, will result in societies becoming increasingly accustomed to robots entertaining them, which will further fuel the market for robot entertainment.”

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