Warm tech: ‘Prototyping in Tokyo’ explores the possibilities of design-led innovation

'Apostroph' explores the act of standing © Kato Yasushi

Earlier this month the world’s tech leaders and start-ups gathered in Las Vegas to present their innovations at the annual Consumer Electronics Show. Whilst some of the ideas, products, and gadgets here will certainly never see the light of day, what CES does is to show the promises of advanced technology. Closer to home, a new exhibition examines a similar theme. ‘Prototyping In Tokyo: Illustrating Design-led Innovation’ at Japan House London until 17 March, is about the possibilities of advanced design and engineering in positively shaping our lives.

Spread on long floating white tables, in this minimalist basement gallery of the deco building, are examples of objects that push the boundaries of technology and innovation. What’s more, these 3D printed objects, moving mini-robots, and prosthetics offer a human touch to machinery. This is warm tech, technology not made for the ego, but for improving and bettering life.

'Ready to Crawl' mini robots with natural movements © Kato Yasushi

‘Prototyping In Tokyo’ is the work of professor Yamanaka Shunji, the esteemed design engineer and University of Tokyo professor. The exhibition addresses three key themes: additive manufacturing, bio-likeness robots, and prosthetics. The first looks at prototyping and rapidly evolving technologies like 3D printing which allow engineers and designers to create infinitely more complex structures in a fraction of a time it would take to do this otherwise.

Bio-likeness robots propose adding life-like motion and behaviour to typically mechanical metal-and-motor robots. Yamanaka has therefore injected the impression of intelligence into these man-made objects. For example, the robot ‘Apostroph’ examines mechanisms that allow living organisms to stand. Or ‘Ready to Crawl’ is a series of working robots, created to be fully formed just like a living thing. This means all the various parts were created and fully-assembled simultaneously, with form and movement closely mirroring living species. The professor moves his hands across the sensors and one by one these intricate little robots come alive. We are encouraged to touch and interact with select displays, to feel the structures and textures of the future.

'Rami' - additively manufactured running specific prosthetics © Kato Yasushi

The final section feels like the area closest to impacting on reality. Prosthetics presents various interpretations of elements of the human body – limbs, etc – and the advantages of working with 3D printing in terms of speed and accuracy of construction. For instance, ’Rabbit’ is a series of bespoke prostheses designed for competitive running. They are made to measure for Takakuwa Saki, the Japanese Paralympics athlete who is now part of the development team at the Yamanaka’s laboratory.

He is keen to also show how new tech can advance old tech. For this, the professor takes on the karakuri ningyo automaton, popular puppets that perform continuous movements, yet their clothing traditionally hides the clever mechanics beneath. Yamanaka wants to highlight the beauty of the machinery, commissioning a ninth-generation master craftsman to make a doll of bare mechanics as the wooden ‘Young Archer’ plucks an arrow out of the quiver, notches it to the bow, and shoots.

Archer on a Boat - Skeletal automation_Image © SHIMIZU Yukio

‘I’m often told there is something Japanese in my prototyping,’ says Yamanaka, ‘that it has “Japanese style”’, he smiles. ‘Perhaps there is something in the attitude. A professor from the US described his understanding of Japanese style to me as the fusion of organic and machine-made. Although what I am doing is simply searching for the common ground between science and beauty.’

Images © Kato Yasushi and Shimizu Yukio. In order: ‘Apostroph’ explores the act of standing; ‘Ready to Crawl’ mini robots with natural movements; ‘Rami’ – additively manufactured running specific prosthetics; ‘Archer on a Boat’ skeletal automation.

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'Ready to Crawl' mini robots with natural movements © Kato Yasushi
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