Japanese Robots: Humble Thumbwar gets Robotic Japanification from Takara Tomy
Robot toys are important, and our weekly Japanese Robots feature can’t always be super serious; occasionally it’s robot art, or giant J-robots' impact on the movies, and sometimes it’s a plastic puppet bringing thumb wars into the modern age. Diverse are budding roboticists’ inspirations!
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AkihabaraNews’ Japanese Robots Shifts into a Lighter Gear ...Kinda!
Regular readers of AkihabaraNews’ weekly, Japan-specific robotics pieces - sort of Pop J-Robots, if you will - know we’re usually all over the latest in Lego’s MINDSTORMS educational robots, Japanese entrants in the DARPA Robotics Challenge, and assistive robotics for Japan’s rapidly aging society.
Not today - today it’s toys. So, if you’re expecting another Technosnarky yet underlyingly serious message about the importance of robo-this & robo-that, well, today isn’t that day. Unless... No. No wait, it probably will totally turn into that, but in the meantime...
Hottest Tech of September (because everything else is just another iteration)
What new supertech gadget has people buzzing this September? The next iPhone 5-whatever? Samsung’s overly kitchen-sinked walled garden potted houseplant smartwatch? LG’s sure to be a hit in the hip-hop community with the G Pad, or perhaps it’s Sony’s new flagship Xperia smartphone that may or may not be purchased by people who aren’t employed by Sony?
Negative! It’s Takara Tomy’s Battroborg Thumb Warriors! This is like, you know, so emblematic of the robot-centric cultural milieu of contemporary technology discourse. Or, someone just got a good idea for making money whilst making thumb wars more interesting. Which is cool.
You and a friend can lock your robots together and punch, punch, punch until the head flies off (should sound familiar - see below). The Thumb Warriors are the latest iteration in the Battroborg line, and for those of us here on the archipelago, will be available nationwide on September 14 (about $12-13 U.S.). Seriously, this is by far the most interesting consumer tech product dropping this month.
“Battroborg” (バトロボーグ, “ba-toe-ro-bō-goo,” for the J-pronunciation fans) is a very Japanese portmanteau of “battle robot cyborg.” Of which, unless in concept these robots have some biological components, the “cyborg” part is a misnomer. That being said, if the plastic robot is conceptualized as a prosthetic extension of its human user, then the term is applicable. One is aware of the supreme (sublime?) dorkiness of that statement. But it’s the truth, and that’s how we roll.
The Thumb Warriors are new, but are in fact legacy; Takara Tomy’s already all over the robot fighting game (pun intended):
You can get yourself hip to the basics of battery powered, motion-controlled Battroborgs with the videos below (and if you really need to get your robot inner-child geek on, have a look at Tomy’s Battroborg English site, or the Japanese site, if that’s your thing):
Way-too-excited man fights four kids in R/C robo-battle (starts at 12:00):
Upon the Shoulders of... an American Product?
The little guys above do have something of a precedent. Both the battery powered, radio controlled Battroborgs and the new hand-powered Thumb Warriors are basically just a portablized, Japanified* version of this:
First marketed nearly 50 years ago, surprisingly ROCK’EM SOCK’EM Robots was originally an American product made by the Marx Toy Company. It's one of very few internationally available robot-related toys or games not lifted or co-opted from an earlier Japanese version or concept (or anime or manga character).
Such creative siphoning via the red, white, and blue straw stretched across the Pacific happened(s) a lot. Best example: arguably the most popular robot toys and media franchise ever, the Transformers, originated from Takara Tomy's Microman (1974) and Diaclone (1980) lines. In 1984, Takara Tomy hooked up with the American Hasbro, spawned forth the Transformers, and in very short order the "Robots in Disguise" populated comics, cartoons, and toy stores, and thereby crawled into the psyche of mostly young boys & not so many girls around the world. In truth, just about every post-1975 robot toy sold outside of Japan owes something of a debt to Takara Tomy.
Oh, and sorry girls, that’s just the way it was. These days, some of the world’s finest roboticists are in fact women, but the scale is woefully tipped. Ladies, you should have paid more attention to the struggles of the Autobots and Decepticons; it was a fiction, yes, but it was an inspiring fiction! Characters from My Little Pony ain’t exactly economic buzzwords these days. Your bad?
Anyway, it’s pretty safe to say that basically every currently-in-the-field robotics professional had at least some influence from or holds some level of affection for the Transformers (though let’s not get too excited about those live-action movies of recent years). Also, dorky technology writers - they were affected too. Some of them still have 60+ Transformer toys from their childhood in a box at grandma's house in Montana.
That’s either awesome or horrifying. Depends on your social circles.
The Standard, End-of-Article Moralizing: Toys Inspire Actual Robotics Science Development
Sure, the Battroborgs and other robo-toys past, present, and future are fun, but let’s not overlook their effect on the imaginations of future roboticists. Take Kenji Ishida’s transforming robotic car - some very decent practical robotics development - where do you suppose he got that idea?
Another prominent example would be Lego MINDSTORMS, which, considering the number of serious roboticists not so patiently waiting for their all-new MINDSTORMS EV3 kits to arrive, almost doesn’t even qualify as a toy. As we’ve argued, the kits themselves and the international organizations that’ve sprung up around them have kinda become a fundamental avenue of education and experience for roboticists of the future.
“If you pay attention to sciency stuff and the nature of invention and technological development, you’re aware of the relationship between the consumption of sci-fi and the realization of product, i.e., scientists and inventors, inspired by -fi, often dream up and create some practical, useable sci-. Sikorsky’s helicopters & Lake’s early submarines, for example, were heavily inspired by Jules Verne. Or, if you need something a little closer to home, there’s the cell phone, developed by Martin Cooper’s team at Motorola. Wanna guess which -fi did the inspiring? Star Trek. In the 1960s.”
-Anthrobotic.com, “Manifesting Star Trek, Part-1 (THE GOOD): 700mph Needleless Drug Injections!” May 29, 2012
So, respect robot toys, ya’ll. Much respect. Buy some for your kids. And would someone please market some appealing-to-young-girls robotic toys & stuff? KTHX.
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*Addendum: the Japanification Phenomenon
Japanification, N. [Japanify, V.] The unstoppable, BORG-like capability of the Japanese psyche to reach out into the universe, inhale whatever interesting cultural or technological nuggets are found, and own them so hard that even the Japanese are oblivious to the origins. The products of this process are often pelleted back into the global market, vastly improved over the original, and, inexplicably, 1.9% of humanity’s population thereby becomes a profoundly vital pillar of global pop culture. This is the single most powerful macro-cultural superpower in the history of the human species.
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