Murata Boy rides a bicycle. Murata Girl rides a unicycle. But the Murata Cheerleaders, the latest iteration of androids from Japan’s Murata Manufacturing, are another proposition entirely — an army of small robots that balance on metal balls, dancing and flashing lights in unison.
The Cheerleaders use gyroscopic sensors with inverted-pendulum control to stay upright which, Murata’s Koichi Yoshikawa assures me during an interview in the company’s Tokyo headquarters, is a significant challenge in itself. It appears to work well enough — I played with a Murata Cheerleader that was spinning on a desk in a conference room, and it managed to hold its position even when I nudged it with a fair amount of force.
But in order for a group of the robots to dance together, they need to be outfitted with ultrasonic microphones and infrared sensors to detect objects around them and work out their relative positions. Technology developed in collaboration with researchers from Kyoto University helps communicate each robot’s location and allow them to perform in synchronization. While the routines are pre-programmed so far, Yoshikawa says that a system enabling real-time editing is in development.
The robots' location tech could be used for traffic control
Despite Japan’s affinity for cheerleader-style pop idol groups, Murata has no plans to make its latest robots commercially available. Instead, the project is designed to demonstrate the company’s technological expertise, with the possibility of adapting the principles to other industries. Murata says the technology that helps the robots ascertain their physical location could, for example, be used in traffic control networks with a view to reducing accidents. Similar V2V (vehicle-to-vehicle) systems are being developed by companies including Ford and GM. "We believe that the wireless communication of sensor data could become a core infrastructure for the advanced integration of people and objects in smart societies," says Murata SVP Yuichi Kojima in a press release.
But beside the future implications, Yoshikawa tells me that another goal for Murata is simply to produce something entertaining that might get people interested in robotic technology. He contrasts the Murata Cheerleaders to the more realistic robots produced by the likes of Hiroshi Ishiguro; rather than pursuing the far-off target of replicating the human form outside of the uncanny valley, Murata wants to create accessible, appealing robots that might inspire the next generation of creators.
That's why the Cheerleaders' distinctive bob "hairstyle" follows both form and function, for example — it's made out of the same foam that typically covers microphones, in order to let the ultrasound and infrared signals through, but also makes the robot friendlier and more approachable. It’s a trend we’ve seen accelerating in recent years, with SoftBank’s Pepper set to be the biggest commercial example yet.
Will Murata succeed? I might have a better idea after seeing the Murata Cheerleaders’ first public dance performance later this morning.
Update September 24, 10:05 PM: I've now seen the robots dancing to a breezy Japanese pop song. See them in action in the video below taken at Murata's Tokyo HQ.