Japan's World Expo: The Future Is Here
Sunday, April 3, 2005
There I was, soaring in the clouds to an accompaniment of classical music drifting down from the heavens. A flock of geese glided by, complaining loudly at the aerial intrusion by a group of pesky humans. And then, as fast as a raindrop, I was falling, falling, falling down to Earth, plunging into the inky ocean depths and wading with an array of those bizarre transparent fish with spiny teeth you normally only see on the Discovery Channel.
Yet truth be told, that classical riff wasn't exactly coming out of thin air. And after emerging from the deep sea dive, there was nary a wet spot on my brown twill pants. But the experience inside the Japan Pavilion at the huge 2005 World Expo, mounted in central Japan's teeming Aichi Prefecture, was enough to give me genuine vert igo as I stood inside a spherical theater suspended on a narrow glass bridge, completely surrounded by seamless 3-D images and an ingeniously hidden high-tech sound system.
The virtual voyage at the expo, which opened near Japan's third-largest metropolis of Nagoya on March 25, goes a long way toward answering a vital question about the modern relevance of these global fairs. First launched in London in 1851 -- an era when "going abroad" demanded tiring days of travel with big trunks and even bigger wallets -- the expos once provided the common man with a rare glimpse into exotic lands. But in the age of the Internet and modern travel, when foreign cultures are no more than a mouse click away and New York to Hong Kong a 15-hour nonstop flight, has the concept of a world fair become obsolete?
To be sure, with the outbreak of globalization, much of the expo's promise of foreign wonder has, for better or worse, diminished. Never again are we likely to see the sweeping impact of, say, the 1867 Paris Exposition when the French, overwhelmed by their first full exposure to the natural beauty embodied by Japanese aesthetics, gave birth to the art nouveau movement that would revolutionize Western design. The loss of that exotic mystique is reflected in the visitor numbers: More than 64 million people turned out for the Osaka World Expo in 1970, its first time in Japan. This year, the Aichi expo is projected to draw a far more modest 15 million.
But the Japanese have managed to regain a measure of relevance to this year's expo by focusing on that other aspect of the event's spirit -- a look into the future of humanity. While some of the 71 country pavilions do hit occasional high notes, the real fun is inside the multimillion-dollar theaters and pavilions staged by the Japanese government and such domestic mega-companies as Toyota, Mitsubishi and Hitachi. They have transformed the 427-acre site into Japan World, a futuristic village of local gadgetry, robots and high-tech entertainment with colorful splashes of Japanese pop culture. That, perhaps, is what World Expos are now all about: Host countries strutting their stuff on the world stage.
And make no mistake, Japan -- where humanoid robots have already begun working as receptionists, night watchmen and tour guides -- does the future-world thing like nobody's business.
That was clear during my two preview visits to the site in March, when, after reaching the end of a Nagoya city subway line, the experience started by riding the Linimo -- the world's first continuously running magnetically levitating train (hovering one centimeter off the ground) -- for 12 minutes to the expo's front gates. The vast site is separated into one major exhibition area connected to a smaller satellite locale via a panoramic sky ride. Unmanned automatic cars shuttle visitors around.
My second visit to the site, for the opening ceremony on March 24, found Japan at perhaps its most Japanese. Guys wearing the costumes of the expo's two cute anime-like mascots -- the fuzzy green creatures Morizo and Kiccoro, who could double as extras on Pokemon -- waved to Emperor Akihito and Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi as a group of humanoid robots from Honda, Toyota and Sony took the stage. Toyota's tin man had not only an artificial heart of wired circuitry but also artificial lips, lungs and moveable fingers, which allowed him to accompany a human string orchestra on the trumpet. Meanwhile, pint-size QRIOs -- Sony's stunningly fluid moving robots -- break-danced and jigged in a manner so lifelike they seemed like hip-hop aliens from the planet Funk.
Many of the exhibits will be changing constantly in the six months before the expo shuts down on Sept. 25, but there are countless opportunities to get up close and personal with the robots -- some of which are already on sale in Japan (the government estimates that every home will have at least one by 2015). At the Robot Station, families with kids can leave their little ones in the care of PaPeRo, a weeble-shape robot who can recognize each child's face and ring parents' cell phones in case of emergency.
But perhaps the most intriguing robotic display was the show at Toyota's circular theater -- think "The Jetsons" meets Cirque du Soleil meets infomercial.
A human Japanese rapper got the crowd rowdy while a brass band of instrument-playing robots emerged. They moved quickly into a funk version of "When the Saints Go Marching In" before an aerial acrobat floating on wires drifted down in a gauzy wardrobe, later joined by tight-suited dancers who got down and dirty with the company's automatically moving "personal mobility vehicles," which are allegedly meant to serve as car substitutes in the future. The single-passenger vehicles, which look like high-tech dune buggies, are upright at low speeds and switch to a horizontal position at higher speeds (maximum speed of about 10 mph).
I tried to fight the feeling of watching a vastly expensive if oddly avant-garde commercial for Toyota, and became enamored with the devices themselves, especially the i-foot. It is, essentially, a mobile seat: You plunk down in its cushy center before it rises up on ostrich-like robotic legs and pulls a bio-plastic shield over your head, scanning your eyes to make sure you're its real owner. It can then climb stairs or navigate roads with a built-in radar-like system to avoid accidents. No matter how cool, though, the thought that immediately raced into my head was the dangerous power of this thing if it fell into the wrong hands -- say, my fellow Americans. We may never walk anywhere again in our lives.