Tokyo 2020 Robot Project: Toyota Motor Corporation - Mascot robots bring smiles to children

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In the second of our two-part series, the team behind the robot project speak to Tokyo 2020 on how they can connect people and families with the Games via 'telepresence'.

As one of the innovative initiatives of the Tokyo 2020 Games, the “Tokyo 2020 Robot Project” is being developed and implemented by the Government of Japan, the Tokyo Metropolitan Government (TMG), and official marketing partners Toyota Motor Corporation (Toyota) and Panasonic Corporation (Panasonic) with the cooperation of robotics experts.

The aim of the project is to oversee the development of robots that can provide support to people during Games-time, as well as promoting their standard use in our everyday lives. A team in Toyota are leading the development of these robots which includes Tokyo 2020 mascot robots.

This is the second of a two-part series featuring the efforts of the developers who work day in and day to aid our activities.

A memorable experience for children

Mascot robots will welcome athletes and guests at Games venues and will also take part in activities to encourage children to enjoy the Games.

The mascot robots measure about 60 centimeters and can react to each other’s actions, so when the Someity robot moves, the Miraitowa robot moves along with it.

They can also recognise words and change their facial expressions.

Nomi (far left in the front row) and the Tokyo 2020 mascot robot development team
Nomi (far left in the front row) and the Tokyo 2020 mascot robot development team

There was an opportunity to showcase the robots in 2019, but with the COVID-19 outbreak that led to the postponement of the Tokyo 2020 Games, the development team decided instead to keep improving and updating the robots.

“Various events for kids have been cancelled, so I think meeting Miraitowa and Someity will become a lasting memory for the kids,' NOMI Tomohiro, team leader of the Tokyo 2020 Robot Project, explained.

The movements of the mascot robots have become seamless after the team applied the same technology used on a humanoid robot T-HR3 released by Toyota in 2017. There is a sensor embedded on the sole of their feet that sends information to calculate the centre of gravity every 1/1,000 seconds, which then sends a signal to operate the motor for each joint to produce the various movements of the robots.

The update on the robots can be seen in the joints. The robot’s joints originally had edges to prevent or ease contact against obstacles, but the joints really gave them the appearance of robots. With the update, the edges that were visible were covered to make the robots look more 'real'. The team used a 3D printer to produce a material that has outstanding elasticity that can replicate complex forms while retaining its form when it is stretched.

With the postponement of the Games, the Tokyo 2020 mascot robots were updated
With the postponement of the Games, the Tokyo 2020 mascot robots were updated

The team also worked on the robot’s eye movements. The robot’s eye movements synchronise with the eye movements of the operator. This improvement allowed the robot to first make eye contact before waving its hand. The team wanted people to feel like the robot is alive.

While the Miraitowa and Someity mascot robots will not be used after the Tokyo 2020 Games, the technologies and mechanical construction are expected to be applied to future models.

Nomi is determined to ‘increase the overall volume of smiles’ through the development of the Tokyo 2020 mascot robots.

“For example, it would be so cute to see children dancing next to a moving Miraitowa. It would be a nice memory too. Robots can help encourage communication between children and their parents. I hope robots will help deliver happiness throughout the world.” Hoping to bring smiles to everyone’s faces, Nomi and his team continue to brush up the project.

Telepresence robots link people together over long distances

‘Telepresence’ is a general term used to describe the technology applied to create a real experience, even if that person is based on a remote location.

Toyota has developed a robot using this technology, which was showcased at the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Torch Relay. At the torch relay that took place in Toyota City, Aichi Prefecture, on Tuesday 6 April 2021, the image of a torchbearer at a hospital was projected on screen while a telepresence robot T-TR2 held the Olympic torch, while the Olympic torch was carried to the next torchbearer.

The T-TR2 robot is equipped with a large-size OEL display that can project a life-size image of a person in a remote location through the eyes of a camera there. This robot can be used to enhance communication between people who are physically far away from each other.

Development of this robot began around the fall of 2018 and was further updated during the postponement of the Games.

“We decided to make it clear that this robot would be used for the benefit of human beings,” the robot’s developer NAKAYAMA Takahiro explained.

The wheels were improved to enable travel on all kinds of road surfaces. In addition to the OEL display facing forward, another one facing backwards was mounted because the team wanted the projected image to be visible to as many people as possible.

“Given the limited time until the deadline, it was not an easy task,” Nakayama added.

Developer of the telepresence robot, Nakayama (on the left)
Developer of the telepresence robot, Nakayama (on the left)

In the development process, the development team had difficulty dealing with the size of the robot. It measured about 2 metres high — taller than the average person on the team — and just to carry it outside for a demo was a big ordeal. The ‘crux of communication’ is the large-size OEL display.

“By using a display that can project a life-size image of a person makes it easier for the spectators to relate to when the person at the remote location takes some kind of action. Our goal now is to increase this telepresence [technology] toward the future,” says Nakayama.

The expression “hometown visit online” has become common today. Toyota’s robot may have become a new method of communication between people in remote locations.

Creating a future together through the Tokyo 2020 Games

With the COVID-19 outbreak, robots have become hugely important because they enable remote operation and allow humans to avoid direct contact in high-risk situations.

Through trial and error, the Tokyo 2020 Robot team constantly brushes up on technology to ensure they can give people in remote locations a better experience. They have not lost sight of their original development goal, which is ‘to deliver everyone the freedom to travel’.

“We hope we can create something together that would touch people’s hearts and make them happy,” Tokyo 2020 robot members said.

“We really appreciate the opportunity to collaborate with people from different backgrounds”.

The Tokyo 2020 Robot Project is a collaborative effort involving many people who are working to create a better future for us all.