Mizuno race to make prosthetic legs ahead of 2020 Paralympics

July 29, 2016

Mizuno Corporation has announced that it will start producing prosthetic legs for sprinters from October, a recent article in the Asahi Shimbun informs us.

This allows plenty of time for the company to promote its product ahead of the Tokyo Summer Paralympics in 2020.

Paralympic silver medalist Atsushi Yamamoto (Photo: http://www.jsad.or.jp/)

For the development of their carbon-fibre prosthetic leg, the Osaka-based, international sports equipment and sportswear company collaborated with Imasen Engineering Corporation, a Gifu-based manufacturer of electric wheelchairs and other products for people with physical impairments. 

Yet this is not Imasen’s first foray into this market. In fact, they became the first Japanese company to manufacture prosthetic legs for athletes in 2007. 

Even so, according to officials from the company, at present the Japanese market in lower-limb prosthetics for athletes is dominated by two overseas manufacturers: one German and one Icelandic. And together these two companies account for 90 percent of all prosthetic legs used by athletes in sports competitions held in Japan.

Mizuno and Imasen began working together, and making trials in the summer of 2014.

In comparison to Imasen’s previous prosthetic leg, the new design is said to have a smaller and lighter metal fitting for mounting. 

Moreover, the “spring leaf” designed by the two companies and which functions as a leg, is said to be competitive on two more fronts.

Firstly in terms of price, while the cost of prosthetic legs made overseas ranges around 500,000 to 600,000 yen ($4,770 to $5,730, or €4,370 to €5,250), Imasen have said that the main body of their new product will cost around half this, coming in at less than 250,000 yen. 

Secondly, officials from the company said that the design is better tailored to fit the leg length of Japanese athletes than existing products from overseas. 

Long jump athlete and 2008 Beijing Paralympics silver medalist who helped in the development of the new prosthetic, Atsushi Yamamoto, concurred.

“We are coming close to the point where we can run at full throttle,” he said. “The new prosthetic will give a better fit to the physical builds of Japanese, so our views about it will more easily get through.”

The new prosthetic leg can be seen against a backdrop of booming developments in equipment for Paralympic athletes.

Jamie Gillespie, head prosthetist at the UK-based Pace Rehabilitation told CNN that significant changes have taken place in the last two or three years.

“It used to be that there were only two types of running blade, but companies are now offering a greater range for different competitions, adjusted to boost performance, so the challenge now is to find the right blade for the right person for the right sport.”

Meanwhile Andy Lewis, gold medalist at the 2015 Madrid Paratriathalon, said, “By the Paralympics in 2016 I can envisage a lot of new legs coming out …The knees are getting smaller, the legs will have microprocessors, and you will be able to press a button to change foot for the different events.”

At the same time, these technological advancements will not only be to the benefit of athletes. Looking beyond the 2020 Paralympics,Yasunori Kaneko head of Mizuno’s research and development department told Asahi Shimbun, “We don’t want to stop with just making prosthetic legs.”

“We also hope to develop products that will enhance the abilities of those who have lost their physical functions and of elderly people.”

 

Sources include: Asahi Shimbun and CNN

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Pokémon a go go

July 19, 2016

Since the launch of Pokémon GO on the 6th July, Japan’s Nintendo Co has seen a 14% jump in share value, with its market capitalisation rocketing to 4.5 trillion yen ($42.5 billion, €38 billion) by Tuesday, Reuters has reported.

Much to the frustration of fans around the world, the release of this smartphone game was staggered, initially being limited to just the United States, Australia and New Zealand.

Now, however, Pokémon GO is available to download on iPhones and Android phones in a total of 35, mostly European, countries, and has become a worldwide smash hit.

According to data collected by app analytics firm SimilarWeb, on the 7th July, one day after it’s official release in the United States, the game had already been installed onto more US Android phones than Tinder.

Moreover, the figures for app usage have also been astonishing. SimilarWeb reported on the 10th July that over 60 percent of those who downloaded the Android app in the US were daily users, which means roughly 3 percent of the entire US population were playing Pokémon GO on a daily basis.

The firm also reported that daily usage among players averaged 43 minutes 23 seconds, which puts its daily user activity higher than those of Whatsapp, Instagram, Snapchat or Messenger.

Meanwhile BBC News reported that in its initial week, Pokémon Go was more heavily tweeted than Brexit in the first week of the referendum (15.3 million tweets in comparison to 11.7) and twice as popular as the Euro 2016 football championships in its first week.

Even on the day of the UK referendum vote, there were almost as many Google searches for the game as there were for Brexit, and after it’s release, searches for the game even overtook those for that internet staple, pornography, reported the BBC.

For Nintendo, the runaway success of this game has provoked immense buying of their shares, on a scale that has surprised many.

Takashi Oba, senior strategist at Okasan Securities, said, “I’ve never seen the trend of such a big company’s shares changing so quickly in such a short period of time.” 

In fact, on Tuesday, trading in shares in Nintendo accounted for almost a quarter of all trading on the Tokyo Stock Exchange’s main board, according to Reuters.

Meanwhile the turnover of Nintendo shares reached 703.6 billion yen ($6.6 billion, €5.9 billion) by the end of Tuesday, thereby surpassing the 476 billion yen ($4.5 billion, €4 billion) record it set on Friday for trading turnover in individual shares.

Until now Nintendo has not been a contender in the virtual reality and augmented reality market, yet there has been speculation that the company may seek to capitalise on the success of Pokémon GO, for example with other popular characters such as Super Mario and Zelda following down the same path.

Sources include: Reuters, BBC News, SimilarWeb

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US engineers build self-folding origami robot

August 15, 2014

A group of engineers from Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) have succeeded in creating a self-assembling robot.

The robot’s assembly process relies upon origami, a traditional Japanese paper-folding craft.

Made from a composite sheet of paper, polystyrene and a circuit board, the machine can fold itself up from a flat sheet into a four-legged beetle-like form, and crawl away autonomously. The design also includes two motors, two batteries and a microcontroller. Hinges were programmed to fold at specific angles. Each hinge contained embedded circuits that produce heat on command from the microcontroller. The heat triggers the composite to self-fold in a series of steps.

When the hinges cool after about four minutes, the polystyrene hardens – making the robot stiff – and the microcontroller then signals the robot to crawl away at a speed of about one-tenth of a mile per hour.

“We were originally inspired by making robots as quickly and cheaply as possible,” says Sam Felton, doctoral student at Harvard and lead author of the paper described in Science. “The long-term plan is printable manufacturing; the short-term plan is building robots that can go into places where people can’t go.”

The robot is controlled by a timer which means that 10 seconds after the battery is inserted it will begin assembly.

Felton came upon the final design after testing around 40 prototypes. He fabricated the sheet using a solid ink printer, a laser machine, and his hands. Assembly took around 2 hours.

As the pre-stretched polystyrene hardens after assembly, the robot cannot yet unfold itself and return to a flat sheet form.

‘There is a great deal that we can improve based on this foundational step,’ said Felton. He plans to experiment with different kinds of shape memory polymers, including those that are stronger and require less heat to activate.

The potential applications of this type of machine are wide-ranging, stretching beyond the cheap manufacturing of robots.

‘Imagine a ream of dozens of robotic satellites sandwiched together so that they could be sent up to space and then assemble themselves remotely once they get there – they could take images, collect data, and more,’  said Felton.

Source: The Engineer; Bloomberg Businessweek 

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Blooming bouquets! Japanese scientists discover flower aging cure

July 4, 2014

morning-glory-173440_640Japanese Scientists at the National Agriculture and Food Research Organization in Tsukuba, Ibaraki Prefecture, claim to have found a way to delay the aging process in flowers by up to half, keeping bouquets fresh for longer.

Discovery of the gene believed to be responsible for the short shelf-life of flowers in one Japanese variety of morning glory is responsible for the breakthrough. By suppressing this gene — named “EPHEMERAL1″ — scientists found the life span of each flower was almost doubled.

“Morning glory” is the name for a large group of flowering plants whose petals unfurl early in the day and begin to fade and curl by nightfall. So far, the scientists have managed to isolate the aging gene in just one variety of Japanese morning glory but believe these methods could be applied to other flower species.

“Unmodified flowers started withering 13 hours after they opened, but flowers that had been genetically modified stayed open for 24 hours,” said Kenichi Shibuya, one of the lead researchers in the study carried out jointly with Kagoshima University.

This means the plant has fresh purple flowers alongside the paler blooms from the previous day, he said.

This gene is linked to petal aging, the researchers discovered. Although the scientists have only modified the genes of living flowers in the study, their discovery could lead to  the development of methods to extend the life of cut flowers.

“It would be unrealistic to modify genes of all kinds of flowers, but we can look for other ways to suppress the (target) gene . . . such as making cut flowers absorb a solution that prevents the gene from becoming active,” said Shibuya.

Some florists currently use chemicals to inhibit ethylene, a plant hormone which sometimes causes blooms to ripen, in the preparation of some cut flowers. This does not always help as ethylene is not present in the aging process of some very popular flowers, such as lilies, tulips and irises.

A gene similar to EPHEMERAL1 could be responsible for petal aging in these plants, Shibuya said, meaning the ability to suppress it would extend their life.

Source: The Japan Times

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A robot with a heart: Japanese company unveils newest creation

June 6, 2014

Japanese company Softbank has unveiled its newest design: a robot able to respond to human emotions. Using a cloud-based artificial intelligence system and an “emotional engine”, the robot, known as “Pepper”, is able to to interpret human voice tones, expressions and gestures, and perform various tasks.

In the past several different robotics companies have claimed to have created robots that read or mimic human emotions, but Softbank CEO Masayoshi Son told a press conference it is the first time in history a robot has been given a heart.

The firm said people can communicate with Pepper “just like they would with friends and family” and believes it could become a household aid to the elderly, especially in countries like Japan with rapidly ageing populations.

“Even if one can pre-programme such robots to carry out specific tasks based on certain commands or gestures, it could go long way in helping improve elderly care,” said Rhenu Bhuller, senior vice president healthcare at consulting firm Frost & Sullivan.

Softbank is a majority stakeholder in French company, Aldebaran Robotics. The two firms developed Pepper in collaboration. Bruno Maisonnier, founder and chief executive of Aldebaran said: “The emotional robot will create a new dimension in our lives and new ways of interacting with technology.”

Japan has one of the world’s largest robotics markets, which was estimated to be worth around 860 billion yen (approx £5 billion) in 2012.  The country employs more than 250,000 industrial robot workers. According to a trade ministry report last year, the Japanese robotics market is expected to have more than tripled in value to 2.85 trillion yen (£16.5 billion) by the year 2020.

Pepper will go on sale to the public next year for 198,000 yen ($1,930; £1,150). According to the company, it will be available at stores nationwide.

A prototype version of the robot will also serve customers in Softbank’s mobile phone stores.
Sources: BBC News; The Telegraph
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Japanese banknotes to be adapted for the visually impaired

May 9, 2014

Japan is to begin issuing modified versions of banknotes which are suitable for the visually impaired as it attempts to adapt to the its ageing society. From May 12th, new 5000 yen ($49, £29) notes carrying holograms of a different texture will be issued by the Ministry of Finance, in order to make it easier for the growing number of visually impaired people in Japan to accurately distinguish between the different denominations of banknotes.

As well as bearing a modified hologram, the new 5000 yen notes will also be both larger and squarer than their predecessors, so that they can be clearly distinguished from the 10,000 yen notes. Takayuki Suzuki, Vice Chairman of the Japan Federation of the Blind, said, “Holograms on the old notes were small, and so the new design will make it easier for blind people to feel the difference.”

The modifications come as part of an initiative by the government to address the issue of Japan’s ageing population, which is impacting upon its workforce and economic output . As of last year, an estimated 25 per cent of Japan’s 127.3 million citizens were aged 65 and over, a global record, and a number that is continuing in an upwards trend. Japan may have the third largest economy in the world, but the Japanese government are keenly aware of the potential harm the ageing population – and consequent decrease in workforce – could bring to Japan’s productivity and output. As such, the government, led by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, are introducing a number of different programs, including the new banknotes, designed to be more inclusive of elderly people in daily society.

Suzuki’s vision for the notes is one of great expectations, but he is aware that progress may be slow: ‘We’d like to see different notes having different widths and lengths like euros, but this would be difficult as all the vending machines in the nation would have to be adjusted.’

Sources include: Japan Daily Press, Bloomberg Business

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19th century silk mill to join list of Japanese UNESCO World Heritage sites

May 7, 2014

The Tomioka Silk Mill is expected to join Hiraizumi, the Hiroshima Peace Memorial and Yakushima Island and other historic Japanese sites on the UNESCO World Heritage list, with a decision to be made imminently.

Located in Gunma Prefecture, the redbrick silk mill and its related facilities will become the newest member of Japan’s 18 UNESCO World Heritage sites, should the International Council on Monuments and Sites (ICOMOS) vote for it at the World Heritage Committee meeting in Qatar, this coming June.

Whilst Japan currently has seventeen properties on the World Heritage List – thirteen cultural, such as the Horyu-Ji Buddhist monuments, and four natural, including the Ogasawara Islands – the Tomioka Silk Mill’s addition will mark the first industry-related heritage site in the nation to be placed on the UNESCO list.

Built in 1872, the Tomioka Silk Mill is Japan’s oldest silk reeling factory. Along with its related structures (such as the mill, and the Takayama-sha Sericulture School, which was home to a silkworm repository) the silk mill played an important role in the radical modernisation of the Japanese silk industry, which took place towards the end of the 19th century. Demand for Japanese silk spinning soared soon after Japan dropped its isolationist policies in 1854, as disease ran amok across Europe, ruining its silkworm stocks.

At its peak, demand for the fabric was so high that by 1863, it accounted for over 80 per cent of Japan’s total exports. However, the number of silk mills in Japan were too few to keep up with the demand, and so Japan embarked upon a drive for modernisation, striving to increase supplies and regain its position as a contender with Western suppliers. With its state-of-the-art machinery and Japanese-Western blended aesthetics (the buildings were framed with wood, walled with red bricks and roofed with traditional Japanese tiles), the building of the Tomioka Silk Mill is the truest representation of Japan’s industrial revolution.

The Tomioka Mill is the only remaining silk factory of the Meiji era to remain preserved in its near-original state, inspiring the Tomioka Municipal government to recommend it to UNESCO in 2012.

Locals hope that its addition to the list of historic sites will lead to a boost in tourism in Gunma Prefecture. Whilst the area surrounding the mill has many hot springs, it has reportedly been losing popularity as a tourist destination in recent years. Since the announcement of the possible UNESCO listing, however, tourism levels have already begun to rise. On Saturday in the midst of the annual Golden Week holiday period, a record 6,456 people visited the silk mill in the city of Tomioka, with customers filling the nearby souvenir shops and restaurants, and local silk-farmers cheering the possible boost to their trade.

However, there are still obstacles that will need to be addressed should the site receive UNESCO’s vote. The mill’s facilities are in a precarious state, and will need to be strengthened further in order to meet earthquake resistance standards if it is to be opened to the public.

The UNESCO World Heritage Committee is due to make their decision at a meeting in the Qatari capital of Daha, between June 15th and 25th.

Sources include: The Japan Times, Yomiuri Shimbun (Japan News), UNESCO.org

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