High-five an Olympic Athlete: Robots to Virtually Transport Fans to Tokyo 2020

By Lisa Wirthman, Contributor

When the Tokyo 2020 Olympic and Paralympic Games begin next summer, five new robots from Toyota Motor Corporation will help fans across the globe see and experience the excitement in new ways.

As the world becomes more intelligent and connected, human-machine alliances will create a new Networked Reality, according to a report by the Institute for the Future (IFTF) and Dell Technologies:“The Future of Connected Living: Augmented Humans in a Networked World.”

“The line between the virtual and the real will vanish,” states the report. “Our digital environment will extend beyond televisions, smartphones, and computer displays to include our homes, vehicles, offices, and even our own bodies.”

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As part of its company-wide shift from a traditional automobile company to a next-generation mobility company, Toyota aims to give people opportunities to move through this new networked reality in whatever way they choose—whether that’s through physical or virtual space. “We want to be able to provide solutions for customers that transcend just transportation,” says Nathan Kokes, mobility and advanced technology communications manager for Toyota Motor North America.

Toyota’s “Mobility for All” motto aims to provide all people with the freedom to move, said Nobuhiko Koga, chief officer of Toyota’s Frontier Research Center, in a press release. The company’s robots range from helping transport people with limited physical mobility to enabling virtual “teleportation” to a remote location.

As part of the Tokyo Games’ 2020 Robot Project, Toyota’s new robots will showcase the company’s emerging telepresence technologies, which enable people to feel like they are in a space they don’t physically inhabit, similar to virtual reality (VR). Telepresence technologies range from advanced video teleconferencing tools to remotely-controlled humanoid robots that enable operators to see and participate in distant events.

“Telepresence robots can act almost like an avatar that can be across a city or across the world,” says Kokes. “They immerse people in a virtual world and allow them to experience whatever they want.”

At the Tokyo Olympic Games, for example, Toyota’s five-foot tall humanoid T-HR3 robot will serve as an interactive telepresence robot that enables off-site fans to chat and interact with athletes in the Olympic Village, explains Kokes.

A nearby operator controls the T-HR3, typically wearing goggles to “see” through the robot’s eyes. The operator also wears motion sensors and makes gestures that the robot can copy, like high-fiving. Beyond simply providing images and sounds from remote locations, robot operators will also be able to experience force-feedback when they make contact, helping them feel like they’re physically present.

The T-HR3 will also have reactive facial expressions and the autonomous ability to recognize when it sees a person and know where its gaze should be directed. Because there will be many international travelers speaking different languages at the games, the T-HR3 in Tokyo will mostly gesture and provide facial expressions, Kokes says.

“We’re trying to give visitors to the Olympics a view of the role of robotics for the future.”

—Nathan Kokes, mobility and advanced technology communications manager, Toyota Motor North America

At the Olympic and Paralympic Games, the T-HR3 will serve mainly as an ambassador to give fans extended access to events and athletes. “It’s a fun environment where people can get used to interacting with robots and see that they are a technology that you can rely on and be comfortable with,” adds Kokes. “We’re trying to give visitors to the Olympics a view of the role of robotics for the future.”

The Olympic Games will also showcase Toyota’s mascot robot—a smaller robot with roughly the same functions as the T-HR3, but greater software control, explains Kokes. The Mascot Robot will welcome athletes and guests to official venues. Primarily designed to engage with children in Japan, mascot robots have cameras and facial recognition technology that enable them to recognize people nearby and use their eyes to respond with a variety of expressions, according to Toyota.

Another type of virtual telepresence robot, the T-TR1, will provide fans with a more traditional telepresence experience, offering remote fans the ability to virtually attend the games. The rolling T-TR1 is about 5 feet tall with an elevated camera on top of a large, nearly life-size display that will enable viewers to experience the games. “It’s like a giant version of FaceTime,” says Kokes. The user can turn the robot’s head to see its “view,” he adds.

The T-TR1 utilizes some of Toyota’s research in autonomous vehicles, including proximity sensors that help the remotely operated robot avoid accidents by understanding where they are in space, says Kokes. “The three rules of autonomy are: Don’t hit anything; don’t get hit; and don’t run off the road.”

Beyond the Games

Toyota’s robots are inspired, in part, by an aging worldwide population. Toyota’s parent company is headquartered in Japan, which now has the world’s most aged society: Some 28 percent of the Japanese population is 65 or older—a figure expected to grow to more than 35 percent by 2050. A similar demographic transformation is underway in Germany, China, Italy, and South Korea, reports Reuters. The projected strain on medical and social services, among other impacts, is inspiring companies like Toyota to develop robotics that provide human support for a changing society.

Beyond the Olympics, the T-TR1 could enable medical patients to connect to healthcare providers or support any instance where immersion between individuals is required. In manufacturing companies, for example, the T-TR1 could enable an operator to remotely visit a manufacturing facility or interact with a workforce on the shop floor.

On a broader scale, research predicts that the telepresence market will more than double to reach $312 million by 2022, with diverse market drivers that include education, healthcare, and the military.

While both the T-HR3 and the T-TR1 robots are still in development, their presence at the games will help Toyota gauge interest in their uses, Kokes says. Toyota will also unveil three other robots at the games designed to assist guests with disabilities, deliver food to fans, and fetch javelins and other equipment on the fields.

Additionally, the company will deliver electrified vehicles like its new APM (Accessible People Mover) designed specifically for use at the Games. The APM is a battery-electric vehicle that will help transport fans, athletes, and staff over short distances to events and venues. Some 90 percent of Toyota’s vehicles at the 2020 Olympic and Paralympic Games will be electrified to achieve low emissions, the company says.

Offering a glimpse of the future’s new networked reality, the 2020 Olympic and Paralympic Games will provide a multitude of new ways to watch and experience the events. “We are involved in a lot of different activities to showcase our technologies,” says Kokes. “We believe that whatever products or services are being provided should have a benefit to society and provide opportunity for people to achieve the mobility goals that work for them.”