Panasonic: Using technology to improve people’s sense of well-being
Panasonic is already a world leader in home appliances and other devices that make our daily lives more comfortable and convenient. A house filled with them is a traditional sign of prosperity, the focus of which has usually been on people’s material or financial wealth.
But in many developed countries, more and more attention is being paid to people’s mental or social well-being as an indicator of prosperity – prosperity of the mind, if you will. This trend was already evident before COVID; however, the pandemic has reminded many of the importance of human relationships, community and, for some, nature.
In response to this trend, Panasonic is focusing its development efforts and resources in the area of what it calls “augmenting,” which the company says is a more subtle use of technology to improve happiness and people’s sense of well-being. This includes a new generation of robots and robotic devices.
Robots have traditionally been deployed to automate physical processes, for example in manufacturing. More recently, they have been used to perform remote work on behalf of human operators – for example during surgery – or in difficult-to-reach or hazardous environments.
In Japan in particular, which faces the challenges of a declining population and a shrinking and aging workforce, robots are increasingly being deployed to provide physical assistance and care for the elderly. However, Panasonic recognizes that robots have the potential to do more than just automate processes and replace human beings; they are also able to complement them and provide them with emotional support.
The company is therefore developing new types of robots that can facilitate communication and provide mental support, or as Panasonic calls it, “self-enrichment”. These are designed and developed in the company’s new “Aug Lab”, a virtual research and development center created in 2019 that draws on the expertise and imagination of a wide range of people at the inside and outside of Panasonic.
Aug Lab’s activities are not limited to engineering research or robotics; they integrate the contribution of designers, creators and specialists in other non-engineering fields. The goal is to explore new perspectives, such as “What makes you feel good?” and “What makes people’s minds tick?”
An example of one of Panasonic’s early developments in the field of self-improvement is the “Nicobo” human companion robot, a cuddly pet that communicates with its owner in a variety of verbal and non-verbal ways.*
Among the prototype products the Aug Lab is currently working on in this area is a set of three cute little robots designed to deepen the connection between babies or young children and their parents. These robots sing and make sounds, interact with and delight children and babies in a relaxed, non-intrusive way, capturing their smiles and daily movements, especially when their parents are not in the room.
A set of new robot companions
All parents want to capture pictures of their growing children. However, not all of them have a camera or smartphone on hand at all times, and many might not be comfortable putting a camera in a child’s room. In the case of these robots, the camera disguises itself as a friend, the one who makes his young subjects smile or laugh. A typical situation is when robots take a photo of a child in an unsupervised moment and, without prompting, send it to the parent’s smartphone.
Takeshi Ando, Director of Aug Lab, Panasonic Corporation
Says Takeshi Ando, director of the Aug Lab, “When people think about using robots for communication, they tend to focus on communication between humans and robots. But what we’re trying to to do with baby daddy is to create opportunities for communication between humans; in this case, between parents and their children, with the aim of deepening their relationship.”
Another new development from the Aug Lab is UMOZ – a miniature robot inspired by humble green moss. Moss grows abundantly in Japan, with its humid, subtropical climate, often carpeted with gardens, temple grounds and forests. There are over 1,700 varieties, each with its own characteristics and environmental preferences.
Resembling a hermit crab and containing real moss, the UMOZ robot incorporates optical and humidity sensors. These perceive the intensity and direction of light and the degree of humidity in its immediate surroundings, and the UMOZ moves in response to these.
Some are programmed to avoid light and will move away if their owner introduces a light source. Others are programmed to seek the light and will approach in the same situation. Some crave humidity while others avoid it.
Ando explains, “Most of us think of moss as something inanimate that you can’t interact with, but in reality, it’s a living thing that adapts to its environment. UMOZ Miniature Robots mimic this relationship, or dependence. Their behavior algorithms are also programmed differently for each individual. Some will move towards sources of light or moisture, others will move away from them. The goal is to stimulate the perception of their environment by their owners and their awareness of nature.” He adds, “I think wellness is not just about the relationships people have with each other; it’s also about how people can live together in harmony with nature.”
Takeshi Ando, who advocates improving well-being through increasing
As the Aug Lab continues its work, Panasonic is looking for new research partners to help accelerate its future innovation, and the company looks forward to announcing new developments soon.
Ando concludes, “Data for life satisfaction is collected all over the world, and if you look at the trend, it’s basically flat. Although we have contributed to economic development, we have not really focused on contributing to people’s happiness. “New technologies provide us with a way to do that.”
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