Build a little bundle of joy

TOKYO – After more than eight grueling hours of screwing parts together, my arm was sore and my mind was 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 masklike 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.

Manoi’s brain, a microprocessor, is a tiny panel with needle-like parts sticking out of it. But the chip goes in the machine’s stomach, not its head.

The motors are the robot’s joints and muscles. The arms have two motors each – and lots and lots of screws.

When assembled, the legs and thighs connect to sit on flat, bootlike feet. The head is just a single motor that turns to the left and right.

Each motor has wiring spewing out at various lengths, depending on the joint’s distance from the brain, so it’s important to follow the manual carefully and put the right motor in the right place.

After the body parts are put together, the wiring must be connected, one by one, in the right order to the microprocessor, sticking them into the metal that protrudes like needles.

The robot, powered by a stack of rechargeable batteries, connects to a computer through a computer’s USB port like many other gadgets.

Manoi’s software works only on computers running Microsoft Corp.’s Windows operating system, but it’s fairly simple. You merely set the moves of each motor by dragging what looks like a bar-graph for each one.

First, though, you get the robot to stand, shaping the robot with your hands to keep its balance, with its knees slightly bent and its arms at its side. Then you make the robot “remember” this basic position by turning it on and clicking on an icon in your computer that looks like a camera.

I decided not to be too ambitious at first.

I dragged on the bar-graphs that control the arms to make the robot raise them as high as they would go. With a click, each motion is represented by a box on your computer screen.

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