Business

Vstone leader Yamato gears up for RoboCup

by Mariko Yasumoto

OSAKA — Members of Team OSAKA bubbled over with excitement after their teammate scored a goal in a penalty-kick shootout, leading the team to victory in a sort of world soccer championship. The little goal-scorer is a 39-cm humanoid robot named VisiON.

VisiON was a star in the humanoid league in last year’s international robot soccer contest, called the RoboCup, held in Lisbon in July. RoboCup 2004 was the eighth annual event of its kind. The objective is to make a team of autonomous humanoid robot players that can defeat a human World Cup champion team by 2050.

A record 346 teams from 37 countries participated in RoboCup 2004, compared with 40 teams from 10 countries in the first RoboCup championship in 1997 in Nagoya.

Team OSAKA is already geared up for RoboCup 2005, slated to take place in Osaka, their home turf, this July. The team is a consortium of Osaka-based companies and researchers, including Nobuo Yamato, president of Vstone Co., a 4-year-old venture firm handling omnidirectional sensors, as well as robots mainly for research purposes.

“The successor of VisiON is likely to be equipped with simple dialogue functions and network capabilities,” said Yamato. “This time, we aim to build a robot that is friendly to everyone.”

VisiON, weighing only 2.4 kg, can get up from either a facedown or faceup prone position. The humanoid device, painted in black and green, is capable of finding and approaching a ball autonomously before positioning itself for a kick.

Its eyes change to red from the normal blue when it finds the best direction to make a shot. It draws its right foot back high, and then VisiON kicks the ball.

Vstone has since July been selling a robot based on VisiON. Named Robovie-V, it retails for 980,000 yen.

VisiON was brought to life under close cooperation between Vstone and three other partners — Osaka University professor Hiroshi Ishiguro, who studies intelligent robotics; Systec Akazawa Co., an aircraft parts maker based in Osaka; and Robo Garage, a startup firm set up by Kyoto University.

VisiON’s prototype was a robot that one of Vstone employees was building just for fun. Yamato was amazed by what his staff member had accomplished, and wondered if he could make something out of it.

At around the same time, the Osaka Municipal Government made a public appeal to local companies and corporate consortiums to form a team to take part in RoboCup Japan Open 2004 there, as part of the city’s ongoing campaign to promote robot technologies.

It was about a year before the kickoff of the world championship RoboCup 2004.

” ‘Yes! This is it!’ That’s how we thought, when we found out about the city’s call for a robot development team,” Yamato said.

Team OSAKA comfortably won the bid for its outstanding technologies and powerful imagination. With 15 million yen worth of financial support from the municipal government, the team members buckled down and started working toward making what they hope will become the world’s mightiest humanoid soccer player.

VisiON’s strong but charming and smart-looking figure is a creation of Robo Garage’s Tomotaka Takahashi, who has handled a series of robot designs featuring friendly appearances.

“Our mission is not just to win the game, but also to give our folks a big dream,” the 40-year-old Yamato said. “That’s why we think the shape and design of VisiON are similarly important. That’s how we got to Mr. Takahashi.”

Vstone is a venture company formed by Osaka University’s Ishiguro, who is a key member of Team OSAKA, to commercialize his state-of-the-art technologies, including omnidirectional sensors.

Like other ambitious entrepreneurs, Yamato embraces a strong corporate philosophy: Don’t make things that don’t make money.

“I will stop making robots if they become unprofitable. I say this because I know tons of ways to make money by building robots,” he said.

No wonder he has become a major player among Osaka’s robot developers.

“What VisiON can do now contributes little to improving our life, but I know the time will come when the technologies we strive to develop will prove of great use,” he said.