Toyota shows new violin-playing robot, says robotics will become one of its key businesses

By Yuri Kageyama

TOKYO – Compared to a virtuoso, its rendition was a trifle stilted and, well, robotic. But Toyota’s new robot plays a pretty solid “Pomp and Circumstance” on the violin.

The 5-foot-tall all-white robot, shown Thursday, used its mechanical fingers to press violin strings correctly and bowed with its other arm, coordinating the movements well.

Toyota Motor Corp. has already shown robots that roll around to work as guides and have fingers dexterous enough to play the trumpet.

Toyota President Katsuaki Watanabe said robotics will be a core business for the company in coming years. Toyota will test out its robots at hospitals, Toyota-related facilities and other places starting next year, he said. And the company hopes to put what it calls “partner robots” to real use by 2010.

“We want to create robots that are useful for people in everyday life,” he told reporters at a Toyota showroom in Tokyo.

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Watanabe and other company officials said robotics was a natural extension of the automaker’s use of robots in manufacturing, as well the development of technology for cars with artificial intelligence systems, such as sensors and pre-crash safety systems.

Watanabe presented wheelchair-like “mobility robots” – also displayed Thursday – that would offer “bed-to-bed” services to people, including the elderly and the sick, just like cars take people “door-to-door.”

In a demonstration, a man got on the mobility robot, a motorized two-wheeled chair, then scooted around. Toyota showed how the moving machine could go up and down slopes and go over bumps without upsetting the person sitting on the chair because the wheels could adjust to such changes.

The Japanese government has been recently pushing companies and researchers to make robotics a pillar of this nation’s business.

Toyota, maker of the Prius hybrid and best-selling Camry sedan, has been a relative latecomer in robots compared to its domestic rival Honda Motor Co., as well as other companies, including Hitachi Ltd., Fujitsu Ltd. and NEC Corp.

Honda has been working on robots since 1986, recognizing the technology as critical in delivering mobility for the future. It is showing the latest technology in its own robot – the Asimo humanoid – next week.

Asimo – which stands for Advanced Step in Innovative Mobility and is play on the Japanese word for “legs” – first became available for rental in 2000. It’s considered one of the world’s most advanced humanoids. Seen often at Honda and other corporate events, it can walk, even jog, wave, avoid obstacles and carry on simple conversations.

The 51-inch-tall bubble-headed Asimo looks like a real-life child in a white space-suit, as it has grown smaller and lighter in size with innovations over the years.

Trying to one-up its rival, Toyota has been aggressively beefing up its robotics team. In August, it announced that it was teaming up with Sony Corp., which discontinued its Aibo dog-like robot last year, to develop an innovative, intelligent, single-seat vehicle.

Toyota said it is working with universities and its group companies to speed up robotics development, but ruled out a collaboration with Honda for the time being.

Toyota Executive Vice President Takeshi Uchiyamada said technology that Toyota has developed in industrial manufacturing and automotive engineering will “spiral up” into robots.

“We hope to create a robot that highlights Toyota’s strengths,” he said.

Also Thursday, the automaker showed its Robina robot, a legless robot-on-wheels, which has already been working as a guide at Toyota’s showroom at its headquarters since earlier this year.

In the demonstration, Robina, which has a head shaped like a bobcut hairstyle, interacted smoothly with a person, including carrying on a simple dialogue. It also showed how it could sign its name in script holding a fat felt-tip pen with its three fingers.

“I am 120 centimeters tall and how much I weigh is a secret,” the robot said clearly in a feminine voice. “I know a lot about the Prius.”

Koji Endo, auto analyst with Credit Suisse in Tokyo, said it was still unclear whether Toyota’s robotics will bear fruit as a real business. But he praised Toyota for trying to branch into new sectors, noting it’s likely to produce innovations that will be a plus for its auto business in the long run.

Besides robots, Toyota has a housing operation and is carrying out research in biofuels. Honda is also expanding outside autos, including a jet business, and a motorcycle unit.