Computing Profession

Robotic Delight

Michael Conover
University of Indiana Ph.D. candidate Michael Conover

The Ginza Sony building in Tokyo is a seven-story technology extravaganza that would be equally at home in any modern metropolis.  Like the New York Nintendo Store or the Chicago Apple store, this installation exists not primarily to sell products but rather to wow potential customers.  A sort of technological wonderland, this is guerrilla marketing at its best- you don’t even realize you’re being pitched.  

Walking through the building  I climbed past the thousand-gallon aquarium and towards the fifty-inch flat-panel televisions and found myself thinking, "Hey, maybe it’s actually possible to fall in love with a corporation."  Strangely, while I’m well aware that these installations exist solely to entice consumers, this knowledge couldn’t keep me from feeling like what these guys are doing is actually pretty cool. Even as I write this, I realize that I’m personifying the Sony Corporation (27.4 billion dollar market cap) as ‘these guys’, as though they were just some wonky neighborhood nerds tinkering in the garage.

Outside of the obligatory gigantic televisions, high-definiton cameras and audiophile headphones, there were some really remarkable technologies on display. The two which remain most fixed in my mind are a 3D LCD aquarium which uses a single display and color-preserving glasses to bring all manner of digital fish to life, and the dancing, polyrhythmic Sony Rolly. 

A far cry from the anthromorphic clunkery of the Aibo, the Rolly is a consumer robot that doesn’t seek to mimic the familiar, and this entertainment paradigm, one not limited by having to conform to our expectations about the real world, brings with it a whole host of strange possibilities.  A dancing football?  Why not? 

At $299 it’s not clear that the price point is right for a mass market, but undeniably this little guy is a delight to watch, and as the cost of electronics inevitably decreases I’m confident that we’ll see an ever-increasing flow of quirky diversions that exist solely to elicit users’ sense of wonder and delight.  Despite the fact that high-technology corporations are entities beholden to the bottom line, it’s easy to love the remarkable, often exciting products that creative research and development teams are bringing to market.  I’m certainly glad somebody’s doing it, regardless of whether it’s in a clean room or a musty garage. 

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