Walking into the makeshift laboratory of Skeletonics, Inc. in the Tokyo suburb of Hachioji, it’s impossible not to notice the nearly 3-meter-tall robotic exoskeleton in the room.
Reyes Tatsuru Shiroku and Tomohiro Aka created the contraption and introduced it to the public via video-streaming website Niconico Douga in 2011. Earlier this year, the pair showcased it at the South By Southwest interactive tech fair in Texas, which led to attention from various U.S. media outlets and an appearance on the “Jimmy Kimmel Live” chat show. While it looks impressive, though, Shiroku insists that his Skeletonics suit doesn’t actually do anything.
“We weren’t interested in making it very useful . . . like getting it to carry heavy things or stuff,” he says. “We just wanted it to be entertaining and fun.”
The two 25-year-old inventors are hoping their creation entertains visitors at this weekend’s Maker Faire Tokyo, a gathering of novice inventors organized by the do-it-yourself magazine Make. It’s a chance for inventors to introduce their creations to other inventors, and possibly to some investors.
“I’ve found the reactions people have (to Skeletonics) — both in Japan and abroad — have been quite similar,” Shiroku says. “I’m frequently told that it looks fantastic, but then have to explain that it doesn’t really do anything, which ends up confusing a lot of people.”
When pressed on possible usages for the Skeletonics suit, however, Shiroku admits that the technology he and Aka employed to create it may find a purpose eventually.
Shiroku brings up the example of costumed mascots, the kind you find at places such as Disneyland. He points out that in those costumes, it’s difficult to control extremities: hands, fingers and so on.
“Funassyi (a costumed mascot) has a person controlling it on the inside, but the tips of that costume can’t be moved. You can’t twist your wrist, for instance,” he says.
The Skeletonics suit is capable of producing more detailed movement because it’s connected directly to the human body, so Shiroku thinks that the technology may be transferable to costumed theme-park characters in the future. For now, though, it’s just fun.
In fact, this year’s Maker Faire is shining a spotlight on technology and electronics. The event will not be neglecting its traditional craft focus (don’t expect a robotics expo), but as its reputation has grown, so has the scope of what’s on offer.
“The scale of the event is roughly 1½ times bigger this year. We are going to feature 300 exhibitors, 50 more than last year,” says Hideo Tamura, the editor-in-chief of the Japanese edition of Make. “The main fairs used to be in America, but now they have spread to Europe and Asia. They’re not as popular in Japan as they are in the United States, but we are predicting they will become more widely known.”
Tamura doesn’t expect Maker Faire’s popularity to suddenly skyrocket, but points out that by upgrading this year’s event from the Miraikan science museum to the larger Big Sight convention center in the capital’s Koto Ward, “We think we can attract a wider range of people.”
Make held the first Maker Faire in California in 2006. It grew in scope as smaller-scale Mini Maker Faires began popping up across North America. The event was then launched in Japan in 2008 under the name Make: Tokyo Meeting at an international school in Koto Ward. It featured 30 exhibitors and was attended by around 600 people.
More recently, in August of this year, a Mini Maker Faire was held in Ogaki, Gifu Prefecture, attracting around 100 participants.
While Shiroku and his Skeletonics team are sure to impress visitors with their robotic suit, Maker Faire is still mainly a place for smaller gadgets and crafts. Leather-working unit Kuluska consists of husband-and-wife team Naoki and Aya Fujimoto, and they are among those exhibiting at this weekend’s event.
“Previously, trying to make crafts all by yourself could be a little bit difficult, but nowadays there’s a lot of equipment that can assist people in their crafting ventures,” Aya says. “And the Internet has become a great source of information for our own activities, allowing us to reach out to customers directly, making it unnecessary to have our works sold at shops.
“Don’t get me wrong: We’re not against mass-produced goods (like those at clothing chain Uniqlo). However, we believe in bringing back craftsmanship and want to create a place where everyone can share in the joy of actually making crafts.”
The couple took the name of their unit, Kuluska, from the Basque word for “a nap on the table.” They are based in Kamakura, Kanagawa Prefecture, where the pair also hold leather-working workshops, including a class that teaches people how to make the unit’s trademark leather sandals.
Aya points out that sewing leather isn’t as easy as it seems due to the material’s toughness, but she and her husband prepare easy-to-use materials with pre-made stitch holes to help novices.
Though electronics isn’t a major focus for Kuluska, Naoki says that technology has recently been a great help in their work.
“We weren’t originally equipped with any kind of digital equipment that could help us,” he says. “However, I learned how to use software such as Adobe Illustrator and Photoshop while preparing for a workshop on crafting for physically disabled people.”
Electronics sneaks into the musical contingent of Maker Faire’s participants, too. Creating instruments is a booming field, which led to the creation of a satellite event, DYI Music: Outrage, in 2013. One of the participants at that event was Breadboard Band, which teaches people how to make their own musical gadgets.
“In the workshops we hold for people, all it usually takes is 15 minutes to generate sound,” says band member Kazuki Saita. “We emphasize the ease and convenience of our instruments, so that absolutely anyone can perform with them.”
Saita formed Breadboard Band in 2005 with Katsuhiko Harada and Shosei Oishi at the Institute of Advanced Media Arts and Sciences in Ogaki. It started out as a school project that focused on breadboards, meaning solderless circuit boards that serve as platforms for experimentation. The trio attached electrical components to the boards, and by switching them around, could create sound. The resulting sounds resembled the elements of electronic dance music that the members are fans of.
“They were originally for checking electronic parts, but we made them into instruments by putting together wires and various parts,” Harada explains. “By adjusting the volume and various sensors, and by playing with the wires, we could make a variety of sounds.”
Breadboard Band has even used its instruments at concerts, sharing rosters with experimental music acts such as Open Reel Ensemble and Violent Onsen Geisha.
More recently, however, Breadboard Band has been concentrating on producing instrument kits to sell at Maker Faire.
The people at Make aren’t pushing for Maker Faire to become a commercial enterprise just yet, but there’s no doubt that the team is excited about where it’s headed.
Tamura stresses that it is important to maintain the comfortable crafting environment that the event built its reputation on, but his colleague Keiko Kano hopes that some day Maker Faire can “bring in more attendees and be a bridge that connects Japanese inventors to the rest of the world.”
Maker Faire Tokyo takes place at Big Sight in Koto-ku on Nov. 23 (12 noon start) and 24 (10 a.m. start). Tickets for adults are ¥1,000 in advance (¥500 for those under 18). For more information, visit makezine.jp/event/mft2014.
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