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Monday, December 29, 2003

Robot that jogs. It’s a Sony!
Edwina Gibbs

HE may not be able to give you a run for your money but one quick step for Sony Corp’s Qrio humanoid robot is one big step for robots in general.

Electronics and entertainment giant Sony said it had developed the world’s first running — okay, jogging — robot.

"All around the world, universities and think tanks have been researching how to make robots run but we are pleased to announce that we have done it first," Toshi Doi, an executive vice president at Sony told a news conference last week.

The sleek and diminutive Qrio, which until recently had been known as Sony’s SDR robot entertaining crowds with fluid and funky dance motions, can now trot at a speed of 14 metres (15 yards) per minute.

If 60-centimetre-odd (23 inches), seven-kilogram (15 lb) Qrio were average human-size, that would translate into 2.4 kilometres (1.5 miles) an hour.

When an upgrade of the robot was introduced last year, Sony executive Toshitada Doi had said it might go on sale for the price of an expensive car. But now Sony has no plans to sell Qrio, which stands for "quest for curiosity."

Instead, the machine is being billed as a "corporate ambassador," allegedly to highlight technological finesse and imaginative innovation as an entertainment robot that carries out no chores but is merely amusing.

Officials refused to give a price estimate.

The big technological breakthrough, says Sony, was in getting both the robot’s feet to lose contact with the ground at once. Up until now humanoid or two-legged robots have needed to have one foot on the floor to move stably.

"The hardest part was theoretical. Humanoid robots like Sony’s older Qrios and Honda’s Asimo have been based on a theory that dictates that there must be contact with the floor. We had to develop a new theory," said Doi.

Other enhancements for the latest version of Qrio include more advanced finger control that allows him, swivelling like a baseball pitcher, to throw a light ball some three to four metres, and hold fans while dancing.

Sony’s robot developers admit however that Qrio’s running prowess has some way to go.

Its running distance is still short and it is not yet ready to join older models that entertain at Sony’s promotional events because the technology that allows those models to get up when they fall needs to be enhanced for the new Qrio.

The next challenge, said Doi, is to make Qrio’s running motion less jogging-like and more like an athlete’s.

At the moment, Qrio’s time with both feet off the ground is only 40 milliseconds, compared with around one second managed by athletes, he said.

Sony, which also makes the Aibo robot dog, a sell-out success when it debuted in 1999, said it still doesn’t have a timetable for commercialising Qrio, whose name is short for "quest for curiosity".

And Doi admits a running Qrio is not necessarily a helpful product. "It’s not useful. Sony doesn’t make useful robots. Sony makes robots that entertain," he told Reuters.