Special FeatureLiving with Robots
Making two-legged walking robots is becoming a craze throughout Japan, thanks to innovative robot kits and rough-and-tumble robotic games. These pages offer an insider's look into the friendly world of robot fans.
Written by Torikai Shin-ichi Photos by Enomoto Yoshitsugu
The robot is nimble on its "feet," darting ahead, slipping sideways, twisting about, making smooth mechanical sounds. It seems to give up, but no, all of a sudden its right arm rises over its head and then comes crashing down, like a karate expert.
"That last move is called kawara wari."
Kawara wari is a "tile splitter" martial arts move, Shiranui's special combat technique. Shiranui is the robot, and its creator is Hagiwara Yoshiaki. He began making plastic models of the popular animé mechanical fighter Gundam when he was in elementary school. "I had so much fun with the models I wanted to learn how to make a real one some day. So I went to a technical vocational school and then began working for a company making motors.
"My first robot? Well, after I saw the two-legged fighting robots in Robo-One, I thought I could probably make one like them." Robo-One is Japan's famous robotic gladiator tournament. It began in 2002.
"I studied how the human body moves by observing how my own legs walk and how my torso swivels from the waist. I kept applying what I learned to Shiranui's own movements, through trial and error. And I wanted Shiranui to look strong, so I put quite a bit of effort into the appearance. I waited for the right moment, then entered it in the fourth Robo-One."
Shiranui's sleek look attracted plenty of attention, and since then many competitors have brought both performance and style to the combat arena.
"After I get home from work, the times I enjoy most are when I'm fine-tuning Shiranui. It's like raising a child. You'll be good at making robots if you love them," Hagiwara grins.
Japan's first store specializing in build-your-own robots was Tsukumo Robot Kingdom. The "Kingdom" opened in August 2000, on the third floor of Tsukumo Denki's main outlet in Akihabara, Tokyo's electric city.
The build-it-yourself fad basically began in schools, so the store concentrated on educational robot kits and parts. Today, it is also a great place for amateur robot makers to swap information.
Goto Yamato, who promotes the store's retail business, says the dueling Robo-One robots really energized the new hobby.
After Robo-One made waves, the store began selling two legged walking robot kits, and this helped amateurs get into the action. The KHR-1 kit, made by Kondo Kagaku, packs plenty of performance and sells for a "cheap" 120,000 yen. It became the store's bestseller after the price dropped from around 400,000 yen, and Tsukumo has sold more than 3,000 so far.
Goto looks to the future: "We plan to hold classes on a regular basis to teach kids the basics and help more young people experience the fun of building their own robot. Hopefully a few of them will go on to become top engineers."
Combat robot sports are a big hit in Japan. Three of the many contests are Robo-One (over 200 teams have competed so far), the All Japan Robot-Sumo Tournament (where the winning robot pushes the other out of the ring), and the RoboCup for cyber soccer players. "If you count the preliminaries too, there must be around 150 to 200 robot competitions every year," says the editor of Robocon Magazine. Ever since the first issue in December 1998, the magazine has offered a wealth of information on building your own robot, tournaments and more.
The magazine's editor is sure that the number of fighting robot builders has been growing over the last few years. "Our readers send in postcards—some are as young as elementary school students, some are over 60. One youngster wrote that he wants to learn computer language C, so that he can program his own robot."
Could the craze be driven by all these robot kits on the market, and the rough-and-tumble combat contests? "I've watched a lot of those contests over the last few years, and it seems it's mostly the robot makers who are having a good time. If tournaments become more fun for the spectators too, the number of fans will grow even more."