Roughly two percent of the human beings on this planet live in Japan; they share a series of volcanic islands with just under half the world's robots. Japan's robot fancy is evident in popular culture, where young people traditionally explore their hormones in mechanized suits. Japan makes the machines that make the machines - a leading exporter of massive industrial robots that build durable goods. But robots here are a democratic passion - everything from cats to jellyfish dance about in department stores, waiting for someone to take them home so they can continue jerking around until they run out of electricity.
The Tokyo Game Show typically restrains its fun to the screen - robots trapped on a game CD save the galaxy on television. The few mobile games on display at this yearly event are often sadly miniaturized versions of games from years past. But this year, mobile games reached out beyond the screens - mobile phones seized the tiny brains of pocket-sized robots, offering a staggering glimpse of the human-machine future.
Mobilizing Tiny Machines
DoCoMo recently released a 505i phone camera handset containing an infrared port. Konami seized that technology to power their line of tiny MicroIR remote control cars - now a simple application downloaded to a mobile phone can steer a zippy little car.
At the densely packed Konami booth at the Tokyo Game Show, mobile phones sat waiting next to a miniature racing track, tiny Formula-1 cars lined up at the starting line, waiting. The controller constantly vibrated to simulate a rumbling engine. Buttons on the keypad revved the little motor and shifted the little wheels. Driving was awkward; the 2 key to move forward, the 1 and 3 keys to turn. Experienced game player and game designer Doug Church wasn't able to keep the car away from the track walls for long. Obstacles aside, the fun was in running and gunning this tiny machine - it was conceptually fantastic to reach out with a mobile phone and manipulate a physical object. Hey - I press a button on this talking stick and that little wheelbox over there moves!
There was a Combat DigiQ tank nearby, also controlled by mobile phone. The tank on display was being run by a large man wearing a vest with many pockets; we didn't wrestle the controller away from him. These tiny WWII era tanks add a layer of interaction to simple movement: they can shoot and be shot. It's a kind of remote control tag, using only digital projectiles. Again the mobile phone keypad is a daunting instrument for swift arcade control, the kind required for satisfying friend-whupping. But using the joystick of, say, a TapWave, to run a Combat DigiQ device could make for some fantastic mayhem.
Mobile Controlled Real Time Army
MicroIR is somewhat temperamental; these devices are designed for indoor use, and they need line of sight to function. Still, Japan seems eager to reproduce any creature or device on a small, mechanical scale. It's staggering to imagine a small army of vehicles or pocket monsters steered by a mobile phone - a real time strategy game in the handset moving a dozen Combat DigiQ tanks across the living room floor. A neat prelude to Ender's Game.
Konami's early foray into remote controlled gadgets offers a jerky glimpse of the expanding potential for human machine communications. Mobile phones were designed for person-to-person conversation - now people can use them to issues commands to machines. Soon we should see creatures the size of Sony's Aibo robot dog retrieving objects, based on pictures sent from a phone cam. Robot power for the mobile masses - giddy fun, until you trip over a small agrobot run by a bunch of meddlesome kids far away on the mobile internet.
When the Human's Away...
Tiny tanks controlled with mobile phones seem positively playful compared with Fujitsu Labs' Maron-1, a home security robot also run by mobile devices. A research prototype was announced last year; according to information on the web site, the Maron-1 robot comes with two cameras, taking pictures on command and sending them to a mobile phone. Also, the Maron-1 can be programmed to understand the house layout, traversing locations issued by mobile phone command, calling the police or a mobile device if there is a disturbance or intrusion. Best of all, Fujitsu announced that the Maron-1 has infrared ports built-in to control appliances, so perhaps a lonely Maron-1 can entertain itself by piloting Combat DigiQ tanks. Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep indeed.
Justin Hall travels and writes about human-technology integration. His web node sits at Links.net. Based in Northern California, Hall frequents skewer stands under the Yurakucho train tracks in Tokyo. His attention span is not presently suited to book writing, or book reading for that matter.