While attending CEATEC 2017 in Tokyo, I stopped by the Panasonic Center (Tokyo) where the company has 15k square meters (~162k square feet) of demo space and offices. I had been there some years ago and wanted to check the latest demos and concepts that Panasonic is working on. There is a lot going on there, but five items have caught my attention, here they are:
Power Assist Suit
The power Assist Suit is an exoskeleton that amplifies the body’s movement and makes a person stronger. The concept isn’t new, but it has been only applied to the real world very sparsely because the technology is still a work in progress and the power requirements often require a tethered power source.
The Panasonic Power Assist Suit does not try to turn users into “Iron Man” and has much more modest goals, such as avoiding lower-back strains and injuries. Panasonic is already conducting live tests in warehouses where workers routinely move relatively heavy boxes. It has also partnered with the Japanese Para Powerlifting federation where the staff lifts heavy weights often to adjust the participant’s load.
According to Panasonic, the Suit does not impede movements such as walking, but the motors kick in if a strenuous effort is detected. The suit runs on batteries, which Panasonic manufactures too. First unveiled in 2016, the Power Assist Suit is still being refined by Panasonic’s engineers.
Panasonic’s LinkRay is a rare mass-scale application of data transfer via LED lights. The principle is quite simple: LED lights can be made to modulate their brightness in a way that humans cannot see, but that phone cameras can easily detect. That way, small quantities of binary data can be transmitted to an application.
Panasonic is deploying this technology in Japan for various signage systems. With the companion app, merely pointing the phone in the direction of the signage will download the content to the phone, and link to additional data. This can be used for trains or bus schedules, and the data can be translated immediately into many languages (5 for now). The Haneda Airport in Tokyo has one of those right now.
The same technology can be used for coupons, vouchers and has many other use cases. LinkRay works a bit like a barcode but overcomes many common barcode issues. For example, you don’t need to get close to the signage, so it works very well in a crowded environment.
Robotic Electric Wheelchair “WHILL NEXT”
Robotic chairs are a thing in Japan. We’ve seen models from Honda and others, but the Whill Next from Panasonic is deployed in Haneda Airport as an experiment. With the help of an app, you can call a chair, which will then transport you where you need to go.
It doesn’t go very fast, so it may be useful for senior citizens or for someone who can’t find a specific place. However, Panasonic has built this for everyone. Several Whill Next can form a convoy, and the Panasonic engineers told me that the track each other visually using lasers or infra-red. In any case, the app seems to work only in Japanese for now, but it sure looks like we’re one step closer to Wall-E.
Smart kitchen concept
Panasonic’s vision of the kitchen now includes a voice assistant that will guide you step by step as you cook. Unlike today’s such assistants that come in a “box” such as the Google Home or Amazon Echo, the Panasonic concept one is wholly integrated into the kitchen (and other spaces) thanks to built-in speakers and microphones. There is also a visual avatar of the assistant which is projected from the ceiling (the smiley face in the photo above).
Obviously, this is not going to be a standard kitchen feature anytime soon, but it’s interesting to see how these concepts can be designed and built to see how they would work in a real-life situation. That said, the Panasonic demo area might only show a real-life for the 0.5%, but we had a good time testing it.
Beard Simulator with the Future Mirror
I had spotted the Future Mirror at CES last year, and this is an evolving concept that Panasonic has been working on. This time, our media group tried the “beard simulator” which adds beard or mustache in your reflection (my friend Steve Greenberg is trying it, while I take a photo on the right). It works by tracking your face shape and movements in 3D then adding a facial hair layer (also in 3D) on top it. It is possible to select a different style, and it works well to give you a rough idea of what you would look like with a different style.