Matsushita eyes household robots again

These prototype robots won't roll their eyes or dance, but if you fall, they could help you get up. Photo: Robotic jacket has power up its sleeve

Michael Kanellos Staff Writer, CNET News.com
Michael Kanellos is editor at large at CNET News.com, where he covers hardware, research and development, start-ups and the tech industry overseas.
Michael Kanellos
4 min read
MAKUHARI, Japan--Matsushita Electric Industrial wants to build robots, but they won't be household pets this time.

The Japanese consumer electronics giant, which sells products under the Panasonic name in the U.S., is experimenting with ways to bring to market two prototype robots that can help the elderly or people with disabilities, company President Fumio Ohtsubo said at the Ceatec tech trade show. The event is taking place this week here, near Tokyo.

The first robot can be described as a human forklift. Its two pairs of arms--one set to lift a person's legs and the other set for the head and torso--can lift a person off the ground and into another room or onto a bed.

"We now have 70-year-old children taking care of 90-year-old parents," Ohtsubo said. "The prototype is still a little bulky and awkward, but we will make it smaller and lighter and more functional."

robotic sleeve

The second robot can help a person who has a disabled arm. A sensor on the healthy arm picks up muscle movement and pressure. The data is then conveyed to a robot wrapped around the second arm, which then synchronizes its movements with the first arm. Matsushita is working with another company to commercialize it.

"Very soon, it will become a product that you can use at home without being intimidated," Ohtsubo said.

These are a far cry from the first robots the company made for consumers and in some ways can be seen as a vote of confidence for "American"-style robots. Matsushita's first robots were supposed to be pets--one was styled as a bear cub and the other as a kitten. They did not sell well. Sony, Honda and others also have tried without much success to sell companion robots.

Such companion robots are still coming out, however. At the show this week, NEC showed off PaPeRo, a cute alienesque creature with a 500-word vocabulary that can retrieve information such as weather reports from the Internet or send an alarm out (in person and online) if it detects intruders.

By contrast, U.S. consumer robots are designed with more pragmatism in mind and are expected to mop floors (such as Scooba from iRobot) or head down abandoned mine shafts without a lot of chitchat.

"When you think about robots, you might think of a humanoid robot on two feet. But a robot doesn't have to be like a human being," Ohtsubo said. "We believe it has to be functional."

Ohtsubo reiterated that Matsushita's robots are prototypes and that products have not been announced. However, if the company decides to jump into the market, it could likely exploit some of the expertise and possibly factory space from its industrial automation division.

Ohtsubo and the Matsushita powers-that-be also sat down with reporters to discuss other developments at the company. Among the items:

• The company has a goal of raising operating profit margin to 10 percent by 2010, Ohtsubo said. Right now, it hovers around 5 percent.

• Panasonic may ramp up a plan to sell refrigerators and related white goods in the U.S., said Kazuhiro Tsuga, an executive officer at the company who oversees networking. Currently, the company sells household products in Japan but has de-emphasized them elsewhere.

• The company, which is one of the largest plasma TV manufacturers, wants to make the television the digital hub of the home, Tsuga said. A network cable connected to a TV could deliver videos directly to consumers and fetch music and pictures from a hard drive on a PC or a hard drive stuck in a slot on the TV. Matsushita has formed an alliance with other companies, called AcTVila, to explore Internet on TV. The concept has failed in the past, but this was before YouTube.

• As a firm member of the Blu-ray camp, Tsuga emphasized that he doesn't expect to see Blu-ray/HD DVD combo players anytime soon. "That is stupid, stupid," he said.

• The implementation of Java on Blu-ray will open up the kind of interactive content that can be placed on discs, said Eisuke Tsuyuzaki, vice president of corporate development and the company's point person in Hollywood. If the studios ever go along with it, one could envision features that let consumers edit and remaster movies, eliminating some of the singing scenes in "Snow White," for instance, or mixing scenes from "Rocky V" into "The Philadelphia Story."

• Sensors and home networking will become a big emphasis. Power-line networking is growing in the U.S. Regulations may soon change in Japan to allow it to take off there as well, said Toshihiro Sakamoto, senior managing director of the consumer electronics group and a board member.

• Panasonic may also try to sell cell phones in the U.S. again. The interest is being driven by television programming for phones.