Robots for the Masses?

Tokyo design ace Tatsuya Matsui says cyborg-mannequins are only the first step in his plan to bring robots into everyday life

If robots ever truly make the leap from the science lab to the home, Tatsuya Matsui thinks he will be partly responsible. It seems a reckless conceit for a 37-year-old architect-cum-robot-designer, but you can't deny the scale of his ambitions. Among his dreams: By the time he's 60, Matsui wants to be backstage at the Opéra Bastille in Paris, watching as one of his robots performs alongside world-class ballerinas.

What makes him hard to ignore is the acclaim his small body of work has received from both designers and researchers in the robotics field. Since founding Tokyo-based Flower Robotics in 2001, Matsui has been more than an outspoken advocate — he has come up with robots that highlight the utility of technology being developed in labs. One of his early creations, Palette, is a mannequin with movable arms and head and a built-in camera that, when linked to a network, doubles as a surveillance system. "Design can help people to understand technology — whether it's PCs, robots, or anything else," he says.

Matsui's career arc as a designer is far from conventional. He earned his stripes working for one of the architecture industry's most prolific practitioners, Kenzo Tange, before moving on to an IBM (IBM)-Lotus venture and then a three-year stint with the Kitano Symbiotic Systems Project, a robotics research center headed by Sony (SNE) computer scientist Hiroaki Kitano.


  Robots couldn't have asked for a more photogenic spokesman. Tall and lanky, with a jet-black mane, Matsui looks like a movie star. But it's his humanoid robot prototypes that have become the celebs. Flower Robotics' first creation, Posy, debuted in Sofia Coppola's 2003 film Lost in Translation. Palette has been displayed at bagmaker Louis Vuitton's store in Paris and in a special exhibit at the Leonardo da Vinci Museum in Milan. That work caught the attention of engineers at Japan's space agency, JAXA, which asked him to design a prototype lunar cruiser.

These days, high-tech factories in the TV and computer-chip industries are bristling with robotics. But nobody has created a mass market for robots, and Matsui has yet to show that his ideas will amount to anything more than a novelty or toy. A few years ago, IRobot in Somerville, Mass., attracted limited interest with its automated vacuum cleaner. But even Sony couldn't sell more than 150,000 of its Aibo robot dogs before losses forced it to kill the project.

That's why Matsui can't yet turn away work on architecture and product design from such clients as Japanese airline Starflyer or regional lender Hokuriku Bank. BusinessWeek Tokyo correspondent Kenji Hall spoke recently to Matsui about the concept behind his robots and his idea for one day mass-producing them for consumers. Here are excerpts from the interview.

How would you describe your job?

When I say I'm a "robot designer," I'm not talking about the stereotypical social misfit who sketches robot manga [comics]. This isn't about science fiction. I'm trying to show the merits of a broader, practical use of robots. I want my designs to help launch a fledgling industry, the way Apple Computer's (AAPL) PCs gave life to chip makers and other components makers. Our daily lives are already touched by some robotics. What's needed is better design and marketing. Both are crucial to make robots into a successful business.

Originally, you weren't a designer.

My formal training is in architecture. I learned a lot about building and urban planning from working with Kenzo Tange. That was the early 1990s. I then went to graduate school in Paris to study computers, and got a job doing software interface design at Lotus.

When I came back to Japan, I worked on robot design with engineers and scientists for the Kitano Symbiotic Systems Project. For three years, I studied software and hardware interface tech and artificial intelligence.

What's your basic business strategy?

I have a clear vision of how robots can enter the mainstream, but it's hard to persuade other people. Design can help people to understand technology — whether it's PCs, robots, or anything else. Design takes a concept and gives it form.

Before anyone will buy into this idea, I have to come up with prototypes that will demonstrate how robots can be used. Nobody believed Steve Jobs 30 years ago when he said that [personal computers] had the potential of becoming a powerful tool. Scientists might have thought so, but ordinary people probably didn't.

So Apple is the model for your own business?

Yes. Steve Jobs is my hero. I want my company to have a following, like Apple. Take iTunes. It wasn't a new technology, but it created a new market. That's what I'm trying to do for robots. Right now, I have a half dozen product designers, architects, and engineers, and I'm hiring more.

What was the concept behind your first prototype, Posy?

Posy is modeled on a three-year-old flower girl at a wedding. I wanted Posy to be a symbol for this company. War represents technology's evil side. My goal is to develop technology for peaceful means, and Posy reflects that philosophy.

Do you have any big plans for Posy?

Posy is a work-in-progress. By the time I'm 60, my dream is to have Posy dance on the same stage as a ballerina at the opera house in Paris. If that happens, it will represent a true convergence of art and science. My other dream is to win corporate sponsorship for Posy to be a UNICEF ambassador.

What about your prototype, Palette?

Palette is a mannequin. A mannequin's function is to bring publicity to a store. Add robotics, and you have something new. If all store windows in town had robotic mannequins, it would be a first step in bringing robots to the masses.

Palette can be connected to a network and controlled remotely. The one in the store window in the Louis Vuitton shop in Paris is programmed to move, and because it's linked to a network, it can also work as a security surveillance camera.

We're more interested in developed technology, not experimental. The next step is to bring robotics into the home. We've already started on those but it could take another five, 10 years. Generally, it takes about two years to go from sketch to prototype.

Palette represents this company's business model. Most people learned about robots through Hollywood movies or manga. There has been no meaningful public debate about how to use humanoid robots. In my opinion, robots don't belong in the lab. They can contribute to society. A robot doesn't have to be something that costs tens of billions of yen. It might have only a few simple functions, but they can perform their roles far better than any person can.

What projects are you working on now?

I've designed another robotic mannequin for a jewelry store that also operates a surveillance camera that will be rigged to a shop's security system. We have several jobs I can't talk about. I can say that we're designing robotics for homes and offices. We're also involved in a project with the government.

And your other work in design or architecture?

I recently set up a furniture-design studio in Rome with an Italy-based Japanese architect.But then I was working with Starflyer airlines on its corporate brand, I didn't approach the job as just a design project. We did everything — from the business cards to the color of the airplanes to the advertising. We even examined ways that robotics and cutting-edge tech could be used on the planes.

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