Japanese Robots: Toyota's 5 Year-Old "Winglet" Begins Practical Testing (and it's SO not a robot)

Introduced way back in 2008, seven years after the Segway, Toyota's Winglet finally got to come out and play last week; practical trials are underway. Like the Segway (pretty much exactly), it’s a single rider, self-balancing mobility device. Toyota calls it a robot. Yeah... No. 

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(EDITOR’S NOTE: In this very special episode of AkihabaraNews’ weekly Japanese Robotics feature, we’ll be discussing a robot that’s not a robot even though Toyota calls it a robot but if it’s a robot then so is the Segway and so are washing machines and someone has to stand up for the truth - Enjoy!)

Setting: Winglet Testing Grounds, Tsukuba Science City
Tsukuba City, located approximately 70km (43 miles) north of Tokyo proper, but technically part of the Greater Tokyo Metropolitan Area (36 million humans!), is something of a hotbed for Japanese science and technology; a planned hotbed, actually. Tsukuba is also known as, or is home to, the carefully designed and directed Tsukuba Science City. Approximately 217,000 citizens populate this community modeled, in the 1960s, after already established R&D tech hubs around the world (think Palo Alto, California - you know, where that whole personal computer thing got up and running).

As such, it's fitting for Toyota's Twiglet, err, Seglet, no... the “Winglet” to get dusted off, backed outta the garage, and begin its usage trials in Tsukuba City’s Mobility Robot Experimental Zone - a zone that’s been doing exactly what it sounds like it does since 2011.

The Personal Mobility "Robot" From Toyota
We’re going to get back to that whole “robot” thing, but first, a look at our subject. When debuted in 2008, almost exactly five years ago, the Winglet lineup included three models:

Winglet's 2008 Lineup

The shorter versions, one intended for adults and the other for children or smaller people, are "steered" with the knees and directed weight of the rider. The taller one with the handle works exactly like, well, you know - maybe Toyota thought no one would notice that it’s basically a small-wheeled Segway with wrap-around rims, a snazzy handle, and color options.

The Winglet’s top speed is 3.7mph/6kph, much slower than the most common Segway model’s 12.5mph/20kph. Given that the Winglet’s planned for out- and indoor use, that’s probably for the best.

According to Toyota’s press release:

The Winglet, created with the aim of contributing to the development of a society where mobility is safe, freely accessible, and fun, is a next-generation mobility robot that offers users outstanding operability and performance that expands the user's world, with a compact size and ease of use suited to modern living environments.

Here’s the Winglet in, uhhh, action in 2008:

And last week’s promo video:

Initially, staff members from Japan’s National Institute of Advanced Industrial Science and Technology (AIST) and Tsukuba Science City employees will share eight of the long-handled Segway-esque models, and through the end of 2013, assess the “safety, functionality and convenience of the Winglet so it can be used on public sidewalks in the future.” Thereafter, through to March of 2016, studies will focus on potential demand, real-world feasibility, and benefits/drawbacks. All trials will be conducted in the afore-memtioned Mobility Robot Experimental Zone.

Seems kinda like a biased group in a too-controlled environment, but that's probably just reality talking. And speaking of reality, for those of us kinda scratching our heads at all of this, here's more from the source:  

“Toyota Motor Company and Tsukuba believe that the Winglet trials will be highly significant in the development of mobility-robot-using communities with low environmental impact.”

Okay... so, apparently all this assessment is going to take another 3 years, and then, 8 years after the Winglet was an actual thing that functioned, maybe then they’ll be able to decide if it’s a keeper or not. One kinda has to wonder, dear Toyota R&D, what’s the holdup? We’re all interested in the concept of mobility robotics & devices, so of course work of this kind is important and valuable. And, everybody wants the devices to be safe, appropriate, and actually beneficial, so a certain amount of real-world testing and evaluation is definitely in order. But...

...uhhh, Maybe Winglet Does as Segway Did?
Obviously, Toyota was paying attention when they cloned the Segway, but could it be that no one followed its rather horrible career as a product? We’re certainly not the first to point this out, but twelve years of Segway on the market does offer a pretty good analog. Those things don’t exactly fly off the shelves.

No doubt, the Segway is flawed and inappropriate in all kinds of ways (cost, size, safety, liability, knowing where one can and cannot ride it, etc.), so while Toyota's extensive testing is logical, it has a good chance of also being like, you know, mute. Literally years before Toyota had even made theirs public, it was foregone, it was very well-understood that, though technological marvels, these things are just ferociously impractical.

But hey, it's Japan, and maybe Japan can get it right! Given the country’s inevitable slide toward a profound population decline, in years to come there certainly will be a lot more actual public space for such devices.

Now, about the nomenclature: the Winglet is not a robot. It’s totally not. Toyota, here - since you make cars, let’s use that as a baseline, and then, you’ve got some explaining to do.

What's in a Name When the Name is "Robot?"
The thing is, Toyota wants to describe their self-steadying and responsive-to-weight-shifting mobility device as a robot. If we’re to accept that, we better start calling the Segway a robot too, huh? But nobody did that in 2001, nor have they since. Hmmm. And what about washing machines and any other mechanical device that physically self-balances? Robots?

Giving Toyota the benefit of the doubt, perhaps it’s due to the capabilities of the Winglet, which arguably are robotic features. But, by that logic, climate control in Toyota’s cars, anti-lock brakes, power windows & mirrors, even windshield wipers would qualify as robotic features, yet Toyota doesn’t bill their cars as robots.

And no one would argue that any given commercially available car is a robot (they're coming, though).

So, Toyota, any comment? No? Okay, moving on to dorkier depths...

Defining the Word “Robot” is Probably the Most Geektastic Controversy on Planet Earth (but it’s really important)
Among roboticists and those of us in the robo-geekery choir, bringing up discussion on defining the word “robot” is like trying to discuss politics in mixed company. At a funeral. This point of contention is nothing like the ultra-nerdy morality conundrum of Han shooting Greedo first, this one actually has real-world implications for the ever growing and very rapidly advancing robotics industry.

Practical, useful definitions of what is and is not a robot, and what is and is not robotic, are murky and subjective at best. However, one thing many roboticists agree on is that, for a device to be a robot, it must have a measure of autonomous, whole-device movement capability that functions in concert with some level of automatically controlled or actuated task management. Not exactly a clear cut and dried set of guidelines, that.

A pressing and quite contentious example is the aerial drone. There are truly robotic, autonomous aircraft in R&D phases (the U.S. Air Force's spaceplane, the U.S. Navy’s fighter drone), but all practical, currently in-use drones are controlled by a remote user. The rub is, their mobility isn’t entirely user controlled, but instead of accepting them as machines with robotic features, sensationalists shake their fists at the sky and call them killer robots raining fire from above.

Sure, drones do have some autonomous flying and GPS-based waypoint-to-waypoint movement ability, and those are arguably robotic features, but they do not make drones as a whole “robots.” Those features make drones supertech R/C planes, some with autopilot and weapons.

But let’s jump back to cars: An even modestly priced modern automobile is stuffed with autonomous, robotic features. But the cars in and of themselves aren’t robots. Undirected by an external force, i.e., a user, Toyota’s cars, Segways, and the not-so-new-but-back-on-the scene Winglets - they do nothing. We know a robot when we see one, and in this case, sorry Toyota - we don’t.

Realistically, probably, Toyota knows this thing isn't a robot, but they also know that the word brings with it a certain contemporary cultural cachet of cool. And that, that right there, in the actual factual robotics department, is something Toyota ain’t got.

But one of their competitors does.

Possible Jealousy and/or Bandwagoning Among J-Auto Makers?
Speculation, as always, is speculative at best, but perhaps there's some corporate jabbing, coat-tailing, or conceptual drafting at work here. Even back in 2008, could be that Toyota was eager to call it a mobility "robot" instead of "device" because of all the adoring press another Japanese automaker gets for theirs.

Honda Mobility Robots Lineup

Yeah, we've mentioned those robots a few times.

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VIA: IT Media (Japanese/日本語); Toyota
Images: Toyota; Honda; Akihabara News!