Panasonic robot gives 16-finger, automated hair washing

Part of effort by Panasonic to build $1.2B robotics business by 2015.

Panasonic has developed a hair-washing robot that uses 16 electronically controlled fingers to give a perfect wash and rinse, the company said Friday.

The robot, images of which were distributed by Panasonic, appears to be about the size of a washing machine. Users sit in a reclining chair and lean back to place their head in the machine's open top.

Two robot arms guide the 16 fingers, which have the same dexterity as human fingers, the company claimed. Sensors scan the person's head to measure its shape and assure that just the right amount of pressure is applied when washing and rinsing, Panasonic said.

The machine also remembers each person's head shape and preferred massage course so a repeat wash and rinse is as good as the first.

The robot was developed to assist caregivers in hospitals and health-care facilities and is the product of a Panasonic program that is developing robotic technology for health care and welfare services.

The prototype will be unveiled in Tokyo next week at the International Home Care & Rehabilitation Exhibition, which runs from Sept. 29 to Oct. 1.

At the same event last year Panasonic showed off a prototype of a robotic bed that morphed into a wheelchair. It worked in the opposite way that some airline seats convert into flat beds and the prototype on show last year looked very much like an aircraft seat. ( See video .)

An updated version of the bed will also be unveiled at the event this year.

The latest model appears less bulky than last year's prototype. Panasonic said it has reduced the number of motors and modified components to make the docking and undocking of the wheelchair from the bed a much smoother operation.

Panasonic said the robots are designed to provide a more comfortable life for the elderly and people with limited mobility while reducing the burden on caregivers.

While not well known for its robotic technology, Panasonic is hoping to build its research into a $1.2 billion business by 2015. The company has a robotics lab at its research laboratory in Osaka and has developed a handful of prototype robots in addition to the bed.

They include a porter robot that can be used to assist workers in pulling heavy objects like medical carts and a robot that can assist with serving food and washing dishes. (See this video for shots of these robots at work.)

Panasonic hasn't provided a launch date for any of the robots. An obstacle to their commercialization likes in the lack of safety standards and liability laws concerning robots that interact with humans. Clarification is needed on such issues before the robots could become products, but guidelines could be published in Japan as early as 2012.

Martyn Williams covers Japan and general technology breaking news for The IDG News Service. Follow Martyn on Twitter at @martyn_williams. Martyn's e-mail address is martyn_williams@idg.com

Read more about emerging technologies in Computerworld's Emerging Technologies Topic Center.

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