Assistive Robotics

Japan’s Big Two May Have the Assistive Technology Prototypes that Could Change the Mobility Landscape

When Japanese cell phone company J-phone released the first camera phone, the J-SH04, in 2000, many in the United States dismissed it as a useless fad. Three years later, however, the Sanyo 8100 introduced Americans to the wonders of the camera phone and changed the way the world looked at phones.
Japan’s gadget-obsessed culture has resulted in technological innovations that were once deemed unimaginable, unfathomable and even undesirable. Some of the country’s inventions, such as the camera phone, have played an integral part in redefining how the world uses technology in their daily lives, while others, such as USB-heated mittens, are seen as useless novelties.

In fact, so many bizarre gadgets have been invented in Japan that in the mid-nineties, Japanese inventor Kenji Kawakami began referring to these inventions as “Chindogu,” or “unuseless” — they solve a problem, but are too ridiculous to be practical. However, in the midst of all those unuseless inventions, a few life-changing ones emerged as well.

Toyota and Honda, two of the world’s biggest automakers, have robotic divisions dedicated to creating the next life-changing invention, and although it may look like they are following in the Chindogu tradition, many of these robotic devices may someday help the physically disabled and the elderly.
Here is a look at some of the latest technological innovations from the two automakers. Who knows? Someday these could evolve into the next generation of mobility devices.


As the latest in a succession of models that include the PM, i-unit and swing, the i-REAL is a single-person concept vehicle that explores the possibilities of combining personal mobility with a vehicle. Paul Nolasco, assistant manager for Toyota’s corporate communications department, says the company’s main vision when developing the i-REAL was “enhancing the ability of individuals to move about, whether they have physical disabilities or not.”

When used in pedestrian areas, i-REAL’s three wheels shorten and keep the user at eye-level to make moving among people easier and inconspicuous. But when it’s alongside other vehicles, the i-REAL’s wheelbase lengthens to provide a lower center of gravity and better driving performance. A single control lever is used to maneuver the i-REAL. It is made with soft materials and equipped with internal sensors to alert the driver when he/she is approaching a pedestrian, and its safety functions alert other vehicles of its presence when on the road.

Probability Factor: Toyota showcased the i-REAL at the 2008 Tokyo Motor Show, and although Nolasco says that the manufacturer has not announced any concrete plans to commercialize the mobility device, Toyota intends to make robots a core part of the company sometime in the 2020s.


The i-Foot’s half-shell enclosure and bird-like leg structure are designed to provide a safe mode of transportation for the physically disabled and the elderly. Its legs can crouch to make mounting and dismounting easier, and its enclosure prevents the user from falling. Users operate a joystick to steer the i-Foot, control its speed and go up and down staircases.

Probability Factor: No other update has been made since its public debut at the EXPO 2005 in Aichi, Japan, and with a top speed of less than 2 mph and a current weight capacity of just 132 pounds, the i-Foot has a long way to go before it will be ready to enter and seriously compete in the mobility market.

Violin-Playing Robot
With 17 joints in both of its hands and arms, the violin-playing robot achieves human-like dexterity. Toyota’s main goal with its Partner Robots is that they should play a secondary or assistive role to a person. As the latest addition to the Toyota Partner Robot line, the bipedal robot can help with domestic duties and nursing and medical care. At about 123 lbs., the robot can easily be transported to a nursing home or care facility.
Probability Factor: Toyota reportedly hopes to realize a fully-functional assistive robot by 2010.

Mobiro is a mobility robot that is capable of autonomous movement over uneven surfaces and can be used to travel short distances. Its intelligence capabilities include following a person to a destination and acting as a porter. The robot maneuvers around obstacles with the independent vertical movement of its right and left wheels. Probability Factor: Toyota has begun public tests of Mobiro at a hospital in Japan.


Robotic Walker
The device helps support a person’s body weight, reducing the load on his/her legs while walking, going up and down stairs and lifting heavy objects. Because it relieves pressure from joints and leg muscles, the walker is ideal for people with arthritis or weakened leg muscles. The device consists of a seat, frame and shoes, and individuals put on the walker by inserting their feet into the shoes and adjusting the seat height. A mechanism adjusts the assisting force to an individual’s natural movements.
Probability Factor: Honda began testing a second-generation walker at its factory in Sayama, Saitama, in November.


Since 1986, Honda has been developing an advanced humanoid robot, and each generation becomes more and more advanced. In 2000, ASIMO was born, and its latest edition can recharge autonomously, work in coordination with other ASIMOs and avoid objects and people. When performing a required task such as transporting food or delivering a package, information regarding where each ASIMO is in relation to the starting point is shared among the robots. After the most time-efficient way is determined, each ASIMO performs its task autonomously. Not only can the robot identify and predict people’s movements to determine the least obstructive path, but it will yield the right-of-way to people when there is not enough space. When the ASIMO’s battery level falls below a certain point, it will identify and walk to the closest available battery charging station.

Probability Factor: Since introducing a new ASIMO in 2005, Honda has focused more on robot intelligence than on physical capabilities. The company hopes to one day develop a fully functional humanoid robot that can perform real-world functions.

Although no major company in the United States has developed a robotic prototype, scientists and researchers have made big strides in developing assistive mobility devices. A handful of veterans have received bionic prosthetics including the i-LIMB hand, which moves in accordance with electrical impulses given by an amputee’s muscle movements. Scientist Charlie Kemp at Georgia Tech has developed El-E, a health care robot that can locate and fetch common household items such as cups and bottles. El-E is being tested with patients who have ALS.

This article originally appeared in the January 2009 issue of Mobility Management.

About the Author

Carla Saavedra is the former products editor for HME Business, Mobility Management and Respiratory Management magazines.

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