Review: Manoi AT01 Courts Niche Market

The Associated Press
Wednesday, September 20, 2006; 7:08 PM

TOKYO -- After more than eight grueling hours of screwing parts together, my arm was sore and my mind numb. But when the 13-inch-tall robot finally took its first teetering steps, I was moved like a proud parent.

You don't have to be a scientist, or even very smart, to play with Manoi AT01. But there's a catch: A lot of work is required to get it going.

The $1,260 machine, which can walk, wave its arms and do other simple moves, comes in a kit that requires assembly _ a sprawling, mind-boggling concoction of matchbox-size motors, plastic Lego-like parts, twisted wiring, 200 tiny screws and a 100-page manual.

Manoi _ inspired by the word "humanoid" _ is one of the few mass-produced robots meant for your living room rather than the research lab. It's going on sale this month in Japan, and Tokyo-based Kyosho Corp., more known for radio-controlled models, has no plans so far to take overseas orders.

Robots are a niche market, even in gadget-crazy Japan. But it appears to be a loyal crowd, numbering nearly 10,000, according to Kyosho, enough to keep several companies like it afloat.

Kyosho says advance orders are going well for Manoi, which comes with a mask-like casing for the head, body and limbs that gives it a childlike appearance _ an addition that has helped widen its appeal to newcomers.

I was one of those newcomers, totally clueless on what I was getting myself into.

I got hands-on guidance from Kazuho Shiroma, a Kyosho robot expert, who has been known to assemble three Manoi robots in a single sitting. But on average, people who have built test models of Manoi or tried out earlier versions of such robots take at least a couple of days to complete Manoi.

Up to now, Japan's most popular home robot was the dog-shaped Aibo from Sony Corp., which came with a digital camera in its head to recognize objects. Aibo wasn't very profitable for the Japanese electronics and entertainment company and has been discontinued.

Honda Motor Co.'s Asimo is sophisticated enough to walk, climb steps and talk. It's way too expensive for regular households, available for rental at $17,000 a day.

Manoi may be child's play compared to such robotics wizardry. But building it serves as a good educational tool for understanding how it works.

It also delivers the absolutely awesome experience of creating something that actually can learn and repeat moves once you program them once.

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© 2006 The Associated Press