There are plenty of robot builders, but none bring as much elegance to engineering as Shigeo Hirose. His creatures are Star Wars, Iron Giant and Dean Kamen rolled into one cybernetic maki.
Truth is, I'd never heard of Shigeo Hirose or the Hirose-Fukushima Robotics Lab at Tokyo Tech until I read Wired for War—author PW Singer, featured in our interview here, sings the praises of the robot master, possibly the world's foremost.
As you can see in the montage and the rundown, below, the dude has been building stuff for years, and things he designed 30 years ago, still seem startling compared to the commercial robotics we've grown used to. Swimming snakes, tiny velociraptors, and giant hands that close around women's waists—this guy seems to know that the real fuel of robotic development is a careful combination of humour and fear.
Make sure you watch all three minutes of the video—the last 30 seconds feature a rollerskating robot that quite frankly blew my mind. Here's a rundown of the featured models, in the order in which they appear in the video:
Active Code Mechanism R5 (2005) - This swimming snake scared the hell out of me. I used to be afraid of sharks, now sharks should be afraid of ACM.
Elastor (????) - What's cool about this slinky with a claw is that it can easily reach things a human arm can't. That and it looks like the prototype for the Lost In Space robot. Danger!
Genbu (1995) - This "articulated multi-wheeled mobile robot" is one of many robots Hirose has designed that can navigate over debris. What makes this one special is it's shiny silver spiky look—like it's also a lot of fun at S&M parties.
Soft Gripper II (1978) - We have all seen this in movies: The robot hand reaches out and grabs someone, King Kong style, around the waste. But when you see it demonstrated in real life, with a giggling woman, it's frankly chilling. Where's the rest of your gargantuan killer robot, Hirose? Wait, don't answer that.
VmaxCarrier (2000) - This "holonomic omni-directional vehicle" at first reminded me of Eddie Murphy's Billy Ray Valentine, panhandling the beginning of Trading Places. Then I glimpsed the underside of this lightweight device—with its four omni-discs, each with eight motorised wheels (for a total of 32 wheels)—and realised this was no movie prop.
Titrus III (????) - I think the lack of a page describing this robot confirms that Hirose only did it to show that he could. The shuffling little dinobot may be more cute than practical, but damn if I don't want six of them.
SMC Rover (1997) - This planetary exploration robot can send its wheeled legs off on autonomous missions, owing to motors and batteries housed in the wheels themselves. It's brilliant and whimsical, but it also reminds me of John Carpenter's The Thing for some reason.
TAQT Carrier (1991) - This mechanical wheelchair is no match for Dean Kamen's pre-Segway one, but it was built many years earlier, and has a rounded styling that reminds me of Star Wars, like it could be found on Tatooine.
Soryu V (1997) - One set of treads, and a robot can fall on its back as it climbs vertical terrain. Two or three, as in this case, and it's suddenly more adaptable. Here, to prove the point, Hirose shows it on grass and snow.
Roller-Walker (1994) - It's a rollerskating robot. A rollerskating robot. It's like Xanadu meets Short Circuit. Somebody call Steve Guttenberg, Olivia Newton-John and Jeff Lynne, pronto.
More fun with Shigeo Hirose:
• BBC gallery of his "robot menagerie," including the wall climbing "Ninja" not included in the video.
• Hirose-Fukushima Robotics Lab, website in English
Video montage expertly assembled and edited by our own Mike Byhoff; "Music for a Found Harmonium" and other yodels, airs and preludes by the Penguin Cafe Orchestra available for MP3 download at Amazon.com.