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Birth of the Book Reader Robot "Ninomiya-kun"
- Devoted to Reading Books Aloud to Children

Seiichiro Kamata
Professor, Faculty of Science and Engineering, Waseda University

On June 11, 2009, the Information, Production, and Systems Research Center of Waseda University presented a public demonstration of Ninomiya-kun, a robot that reads books aloud (see Waseda Movie), at the Robot Industry Matching Fair in Kitakyushu, part of the 49th West Japan Machine Tool & Industry System Fair. That was the public debut of this robot. Ninomiya-kun was born out of our passion for creating a robot that can read out a book emotionally like a child, or with a soft, gentle tone of voice, rather than with a mechanical tone. It cannot read out a book with fully developed emotions like a grown-up, as its capacity is still at the lower level of an elementary school student. The robot, at this stage, is intended to cater to children in libraries, elderly people in nursing and personal care facilities, or people with visual impairment.

PC on the Back instead of a Bundle of Firewood - Image of Kinjiro Ninomiya

"Ninomiya-kun" Debuted at the Public Demonstration

The most difficult part of our year and a half of research and development was to name the robot. We decided the design and the concept of the robot at a very early stage of development. It was designed with the image of Kinjiro Ninomiya and with the concept of carrying a PC instead of a bundle of firewood. However, when it came to naming the robot, it was difficult to decide. Some of the names that we considered were "Kin-chan", "Jiro-kun", etc. It was only a month before the fair when the robot was finally named "Ninomiya-kun". Therefore, the name was not listed in the brochures at the fair.

Character Recognition Using Camera and Speech Synthesis

Two major features of "Ninomiya-kun" are character recognition and speech synthesis. A digital camera that is installed in one of its eyes captures a whole image of one page of a book first and then each character of the page is recognized one by one. Although the robot can recognize some different types of fonts, it cannot recognize hand writing. The character recognition unit produces data in text format. The data is synthesized into speech with Text-To-Speech software, and then a sound is produced through a speaker installed in the lower part of the robot. Currently 2,300 characters are registered in the robot, including hiragana, katakana, Chinese characters, and symbols, and the number of characters will be increased further in the future. The weak point of this robot is its sensitivity to lighting and the font sizes of books, as it has a digital camera installed instead of a scanner. We are committed to overcoming this weak point and improving its recognition performance. At this stage the robot is only capable of reading each character aloud one by one and is not capable of recognizing context and reading in an emotionally expressive way.

Success through International Partnership

Professor Kamata explaining about the robot to the media.

This research and development is part of our international partnership project and a joint effort with Professors Zhao Qunfei and Zhu Jie of Shanghai Jiao Tong University and Associate Professor Koji Yamauchi of Kitakyushu College of Technology. This international partnership project started in accordance with the "Agreement on Promoting Science, Technology, and Human Resource Exchange" executed on Wednesday, October 31, 2007 among Kitakyushu City, the Kitakyushu Foundation for the Advancement of Industry, Science and Technology (FAIS), and Shanghai Jiao Tong University. This agreement enabled Shanghai Jiao Tong University to open its Kitakyushu Research Office in the Information, Production, and Systems Research Center at Waseda University and to start the international partnership project. The project is also connected to the "R&D on the Synthesis of High-speed Pattern Matching Circuits and Their Applications" listed in the Knowledge Cluster Initiative (the Second Stage) promoted by the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology. Since Waseda and Shanghai Jiao Tong agreed to design the body of the book reader robot independently, their robots look quite different. The robot designed by Shanghai Jiao Tong supports Chinese and English.

In a Bid to Commercialize in Two or Three Years

I started character recognition research about 25 years ago as a researcher in the Central Research Laboratories at Nippon Electric Co., Limited. From that time until now, as a professor in the Graduate School of Information, Production, and Systems at Waseda University, I have been engaged in image processing and pattern recognition R & D activities. I always strive to select research themes that are most useful and beneficial to society, from basic to application stages. For the past decade or so, I have been focusing on the very promising "space-filling curve" which is usually taught in the basic course of mathematical analysis. I developed an image processing algorithm that utilizes the characteristics of the curve, and now I am applying it in remote monitoring systems. In order to facilitate the robot's active involvement in society as soon as possible, I will continue my research and development in a bid to bring "Ninomiya-kun" to market within two or three years.

Professor Seiichiro Kamata: Faculty of Science and Engineering, Waseda University

Professor Kamata graduated from the School of Engineering at Kyushu Institute of Technology in 1983. In 1985, he completed the Master's Program in the Interdisciplinary Graduate School of Engineering Sciences at Kyushu University and joined the Central Research Laboratories at Nippon Electric Co., Limited. At present, he serves as Professor in the Graduate School of Information, Production, and Systems on the Faculty of Science and Engineering at Waseda University. Before assuming his present position, he served as Professor in the Graduate School of Information, Production, and Systems at Waseda University in 2003, Visiting Professor in the Research Institute for Science and Engineering at Waseda University in 2001, Associate Professor in the Graduate School of ISEE at Kyushu University in 1996, and Associate Researcher in the Department of Electrical Engineering in the School of Engineering at the Kyushu Institute of Technology in 1988.
Publication: "Image Processing, Image Representation, Compression and Fractal" (Saiensu-Sha Co., Ltd.), 2003
Translation: Space-Filling Curves by H. Sagan (Original: Springer-Verlag Tokyo), 1998