Ballroom dancing is no longer just for the romantic. Japanese researchers have developed a robot capable of taking to the floor by predicting how its human partner will move.
The Partner Ballroom Dance Robot -- or PBDR in robot talk -- has a woman's face, a sensor around its waist and can move in all directions on its three wheels hidden underneath an evening gown.
As its partner takes steps, the robot analyzes his movements and figures out how to accompany him with its shoulders, elbows, waist and neck.
But for those who would be caught up in the moment, PBDR has clear robotic traits. It comes in two colors -- shiny blue and bright red -- pointy ears like Mickey Mouse and, despite its classic attire, a plastic exterior.
The robot is 165 centimeters (five feet, six inches) tall and weighs 100 kilograms (220 pounds), with a male version under development.
The robot was unveiled last week in Chino in central Nagano province after six years of research by a team led by Kazuhiro Kosuge, professor of the Department of Bioengineering and Robotics at state-run Tohoku University.
He acknowledged the robot did not yet have movements as sharp or as wide to match the dancing steps of humans. But PBDR is a step in another direction -- developing a robot that can care for the elderly.
Kosuge said good caregivers needed, like PBDR, to be able to guess what the elderly want them to do using the limited information available.
"It may be difficult to take care of bed-ridden people, but caregivers for people in need of help less than that would be efficient if they can know beforehand what support those people want," Kosuge said.
"Machines or robots would be able to preempt trouble if they can find what their partners want out from what is heard and seen," he said.
He said, however, that there was still a long way to go until robots will be reliable enough to perform important tasks such as holding a hand out before an elderly person stumbles.
Demand for caregivers is on the rise in Japan.
A government report last week showed the elderly made up a record 19.5 percent of Japan's population in 2004 and that the ratio will grow rapidly, going past 35 percent in 2050, as fewer younger Japanese choose to start families.
Japanese who are aged 90 or older totalled 1.016 million in 2004, rising above the one million mark for the first time, it said.
Japanese researchers have already been putting robots to work for the elderly -- and as dancers.
Robots on the market include a machine that looks like a machine dressed in bright colors programmed to converse in just enough small talk to stop the elderly from going senile and a doll that articulates the needs of a five-year-old boy.
In January, a Tokyo University engineer unveiled a humanoid that can shuffle its feet and wave its hands to preserve a traditional Japanese dance falling out of fashion among young people.
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