p style="margin-top: 0;">MAKUHARI, Japan — CEATEC Japan, a trade show once described as Japan’s answer to the Consumer Electronics Show, has taken a decidedly new turn, reflecting recent changes in the Japanese CE landscape. 

Long gone are traditional CE brands showing off TV sets, video cams and mobile phones. Rapidly gaining momentum are suppliers of parts and components — Omron, Rohm, Alps, Murata and others — promoting sensors and connectivity in modules, dabbling with AI software and the haptic technology that they see as realistic key to the future of VR. 

Bots, sensors take over at CEATEC Japan 2017
Bots, sensors take over at CEATEC Japan 2017

At this juncture, IoT has become a given for any vendor doing business in the electronics industry. But most noticeable on the show floor for those of us who don’t live in Japan was a host of robotic and sensor products programmed to talk, think and behave like Japanese people, mirroring Japanese sensibilities, preferences and habits.

Generally, Japanese bots are much chattier than others developed elsewhere. Intelligent speakers are designed in Japan to not just take orders from users but to “anticipate” their wants. They like to strike up conversations.

More and more embedded systems come with AI algorithms, designed with a strong focus on “inference.”

 We see the emergence of a number of new sensor-rich objects — including a baseball — designed as “tools” to train humans. 

A ping-pong playing robot is programmed to figure out the performance level of a human opponent. It adjusts its own proficiency accordingly.

A common thread is clear: the Japanese development community has set its goal on perfecting “co-bots.”  The focus is on getting bots to “understand” humans, not to beat or replace us. The idea parallels Toyota’s “guardian angel” model for autonomous cars.  

In walking the show floor, the robots we bumped into tended to be short in height, with a non-threatening look — cute if not cuddly. They talk in the voice and speech pattern of a 5 to 7-year-old boy. No Terminator is welcome at CEATEC.

As Japanese colleagues at our sister publication EE Times Japan told us, the design principles behind Japanese bots are rooted in Japanese cultural icons like Astro Boy (an android) and Doraemon (a robotic cat). Both are popular manga characters, with whom many Japanese — engineers and consumers alike — have grown up. They are admired by humans as pals and role models.

On one hand, we worry that Japanese design engineers might be putting too much emphasis on bots who understand “human emotion,” and mood sensors that try to read whether the people in the room are sad, cheerful, depressed, hopeful, etc. Does this R&D emphasis skew toward bots as toys rather than efficient automation tools?

 On the other hand, how do we coexist with these next-generation machines if our bots don’t “get” us?

In the following pages, we share a few things that struck us as new, hot and curious at this year’s CEATEC.

Next page: Intelligent speaker focused on 'dialog'