CEATEC 2008: scrums, ball-point pens and unicycling robots

I have in my hand what appears to be the most desirable object here at CEATEC, and this is it.

Allow me to explain, with apologies to those who splutter into their cornflakes that some content on this site has nothing to do with hi-fi or home cinema. The following has absolutely nothing to do with either of those subjects, but a lot to do with mass hysteria.

Drawn, as ever, to any stand appearing to pull a crowd, I found myself in a throng this afternoon at the stage on the side of the Murata booth. Something Big was obviously about to happen, judging from the second-by-second countdown blasting from speakers and screen.

There must have been about 300 people there by the time the numbers were running down from ten, and then the Something Big happened. Or rather something small, in the form of Seisaku-kun.

Also known as Murata-boy, this is the company's 50cm-tall cycling robot - he balances, he responds to outside stimuli, he fortunately doesn't talk. He even has his own web-page, here, where we learn his life-goal is to ride his bike around the world, and his philosophy is that when you fall off your bicycle, you just get right back on.

Which, given his slightly wobbly progress on the stage, is probably not a bad maxim.

Actually, it's all pretty impressive - using gyro stablisation, Seisaku-kun rides his bike well, and the team behind him is clearly pretty pleased with itself.

So pleased, in fact, that the backroom crew decided getting a robot to ride a bike wasn't tricky enough. So they had a crack at unicycling, with its much greater potential for falling over in any direction. Or, to stick with the cute legend of the website, they realised Murata-boy was getting a bit lonely, so they came up with Murata-girl, or Seiko-chan, as a travelling companion.

A girlfriend? No, she's his cousin on his father's side, and all she wants to do is travel the world with him.

All together now - sweeet. Or to use the local vernacular, kawaiiiiiiii.

Here she is, making her first slightly unsteady progress aided by a Man in a White Coat, who helps her get her initial balance.

By now the crowd was enraptured, and still growing, as the show reached its climax with the two showing some elementary tricks, most of which involved going forwards. Then backwards. Then forwards again.

500 people, staring and photographing tiny robots right on the limit of digital zoom and image stablisation.

And then it all went horribly wrong.

The show ended, and voices in the crowd called out 'We have pens'. At which point a total heaving mob mentality took over, geriatric visitors, charcoal-suited salarymen, young women and camera-toting geeks pushing and fighting and crushing to grab one of the precious gifts. Caught in the throng, I felt the air being squeezed from me, and claustrophobia and panic beginning to set in.

If the women with the baskets of pens were paid stand-staff, they earned every yen of their salary, and must dread the 'We have pens' moment every half an hour. If, as my wife suggested, they're disgraced Murata employees faced with the stark choice of dismissal or handing out pens, I hope they had good body-armour on.

And this was what it was all about. In the land of kawai - or cute - a little charm, or rather two little charms, clearly go a long way.

Meanwhile, over on the Nissan stand, the biomimetic robots looked on with disdain.

Using technology derived from the way the eye of the bumblebee works, these two-foot high droids are designed to avoid collisions, and always retain a small amount of personal space around them. That's what they do - just that.

I so wanted to put one of them in the middle of the Murata mob, and shout 'We have pens'...

Andrew has written about audio and video products for the past 20+ years, and been a consumer journalist for more than 30 years, starting his career on camera magazines. Andrew has contributed to titles including What Hi-Fi?, GramophoneJazzwise and Hi-Fi CriticHi-Fi News & Record Review and Hi-Fi Choice. I’ve also written for a number of non-specialist and overseas magazines.