I, Robot Maker

Back to Contents of Issue: December 2000

A build-your-own-droid store points to an interesting new trend in Japan.

by Chieko Tashiro


Yep, it's a robot, and you too can make one.

FEW WOULD DISAGREE THAT Japan is ground zero for robotics. But what's really cool is not Sony's off-the-shelf mechanical mutts, academe's lab-bound androids, or industry's robot arms, but an emerging, grassroots-level robot-making craze.

Last year, some 7,000 original robots competed at 50 to 60 robocons (robot contests) nationwide, with the human competitors making up the teams numbering between 20,000 and 30,000. The Robotics Society of Japan, founded in 1983, now has 3,800 members, plus some 70 corporate memberships, and more than 1,500 junior high schools in Japan offer robot-making courses (beats shop class any day). The robot-making market in Japan is valued by Robocon magazine at some ¥4.5 billion (about $41 million).

Here are the key robot contests (robocons) held in Japan throughout the year.

NHK Robocon

Nationwide, 12 years running, open to all. Main criteria: creativity.

FSI-ALL Japan Robot-Sumo Tournament
Works just like a real sumo tournament. The goal is to be a yokozuna.

Micro Mouse

Small, self-sufficient robots race through a maze. Fun, but cheesy.

Kawasaki Robot Contest

The pro wrestling of robotics. Nuff said!

The international Olympics of robocons. Last one was in Sydney, fittingly.

Yep, it's a robot, and you too can make one.

But perhaps the most telling indication of this trend is the Robocon shop in Tokyo's Akihabara district. Started in August, the shop helps robo-hobbyists build robots, find parts, take classes, compete in mini-contests, and -- of course -- buy hum-loving pets like Aibos and Poo-chis. "Because of the events, people started to get more involved in robot making," says Yamato Goto, sales manager at computer chain store Tsukumo, which owns the shop. "Before, there hadn't been any place where people could purchase parts to make robots, or obtain information." Goto predicts that Japan's robot market will grow dramatically in the next few years, and foresees Akihabara becoming a robotics city. Tsukumo expects the shop's first-year revenue to be approximately ¥500 million (about $4.5 million).

The idea for the store came after a surprisingly high audience rating for the TV show "Robot Coliseum," shown on the Fuji Television network for the first time in March. "Coliseum" features robots sumo wrestling, obstacle racing, and flaunting their creativity, artistic sense, and entertainment value before a panel of judges. Seeing the rating -- and the potential -- Tsukumo teamed up with robot hobbyist magazine Robocon to open the shop.

According to Goto, the store has two distinct sets of customers. One is the robot makers, generally researchers or college students, who make robots as a hobby or for robocons. Many of these hot-rodders don't think twice about spending ¥1 million on their droids. The other set includes families wanting robot pets, which are, predictably, the store's best-sellers -- more than 10 million Poo-chis have been sold worldwide since their unleashing in April.

"Pet robots are huge now," Goto says, "but we want to support the individual robot creators." He reports that small-lot orders of robot parts, which traditionally couldn't be bought in quantities of less than 100, have been picking up.

Look for more picking up in the near future -- not all of it involving humans.

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