We're still a long way from the time when every home has its own humanoid robot in the same way that we have television sets now in almost every room. But in Japan, bipedal walking robots are taking the first baby steps in that direction.
If you want to know what's going on in Japanese consumer electronics, then you have to visit the Akihabara Electronics district in Tokyo pretty regularly. The modern day electronic gadget mecca can trace its roots back to the post World War II black market that prospered under the train tracks at the same location. Eventually the black market activity moved further up the Yamanote train line to the north, and the area evolved into a center for electronic components, and eventually home and consumer electronics.
At one point during the late 1970's to early 1980's it was estimated that over 25% of all the electronic appliances purchased in Japan were sold to customers by shops in Akihabara. Although a lot of the larger electronic retail distributors have opened large stores in the suburbs, Akihabara is still the first mover - the place that everyone in Japan keeps a close eye on to catch the latest trends.
About three years ago, Tsukumo, one of the more well known electronics and PC retailers here, opened a whole store dedicated almost exclusively to robotics. It got a tremendous amount of press attention at the time, but sales and customer acceptance was considerably below what they must have hoped for. Keep in mind that this was before the Robo-One, Robo-Fight, and Robo-Gong competitions got their start, and long before humanoid robots started booking television appearances.
Tsukumo scaled back their robot store and relocated it to the third floor in one of their main Akihabara locations. They kept the store well stocked, always had knowledgeable staff available to answer questions, had videos of robot competitions running on monitors in the store, and setup small demonstration stages where customers could see the robots in action.
The number of bipedal robot kits is increasing weekly. This
display at Tsukumo's Robot Kingdom features robots from
seven different manufacturers.
Over time, as more and more awareness grew, Tsukumo's Robot Kingdom became a gathering place for robot hobbyists. A lot of the Robo-One top competitors bought their Kondo KHR-1 kits at Tsukumo, and still visit the store regularly to pick parts, or just to hang out. Little did they know when they purchased that first kit, that today they would appear with their robot creations on large posters hanging on the walls, and on trading cards for sale at the store counter.
Baseball type trading cards - only for battle robots? Yes - exactly. There's a real buzz, real energy growing around robots at a hobbyist level here in Japan.
We had the chance to talk to several Tsukumo customers at the store last weekend, and their excitement and enthusiasm was obvious. One family - yes family, not just shy, introverted nerds - was trying to decide between the KHR-1 and the Robonova robot kits. The father, mother, and son went back and forth with the sales person asking lots of probing knowledgeable questions - even though they had never experimented with robotics before.
From their comments it was easy to understand that they had spent a lot of time doing their homework before coming to the store. They weren't purchasing a toy for amusement, they were making an investment in themselves. At first I thought they might be shopping for their son, but it quickly became obvious that the whole family was totally involved in the project. They saw the process of building the robot kit as a first step, and a way to educate themselves about robotics and this exciting new technology.
LAOX, one of the largest consumer electronics chains
in Japan has dedicated significant floor space to selling
bipedal robot kits, parts, books, and magazines.
Up until the past few months, Tsukumo pretty much had the field to themselves. There were lots of small shops, run primarily by robot enthusiasts, selling a few robot kits and some parts, but it's questionable whether or not they were able to make a going business out of it. Tsukumo was the only large retailer trying to actively promote robotics.
Now other major electronic chains are starting to enter the fray. LAOX, for example, has a famous 7+ story computer store called "The Computer" (what else would they call it?) just a block away from the Tsukumo Robot Kingdom, and has recently dedicated a significant part of the space on one floor exclusively to Robo-One class robot kits and parts.
They built large plastic display cases with KHR-1, Robonova, and lots of other bipedal robots. The display shelves feature individually packaged robot components including servos, controller boards, and even individual robot frame pieces.
Information board at Tsukumo Robot Kingdom with photos of
Papaya Suzuki, a famous Japanese television star learning how
to operate the robots for a prime time television segment.
Of course, the robot kit companies don't release any official sales figures, but we've heard unit numbers discussed unofficially in the 5-figure range. With the big retailers, like LAOX, making a serious commitment to promoting the technology acceptance, it looks like the robot market here is finally positioned to take off.