October 03, 2012, 11:28 PM — Every year at Japan's Ceatec exhibition, Murata Manufacturing, a Kyoto-based component maker, manages to put on a show that rivals the big-name electronics companies such as Sony and Panasonic.
Murata, which would probably get little attention otherwise, packs a robot with its latest sensors and has it do impressive tricks. Most recently the company has shown "Murata Girl" and "Murata Boy," robots that respectively manage to balance on one and two wheels and cycle. Sensors inside the robot continually adjust an internal pendulum to keep perfect balance while in motion or stationary.
But the demonstrations, effective as they are at attracting attention, have been little more than gimmicks. That is until this year, when Murata has put some of that same technology into a device that could be useful for seniors or those with problems walking.
The "KeePace" is an electrically assisted upright walker that packs some of the advanced technology previously demonstrated in the robots. It includes gyro sensors and inclinometers to constantly measure the status of the machine's body and a pendulum to help it keep balance.
The result is a waist high machine that at first glance looks a little like a shrunken version of the Segway transporter crossed with an old-fashioned upright vacuum cleaner. But users don't stand on the device as they would on a Segway. Instead, they take hold of the handles and rely on the machine for stability as they walk themselves.
In a demonstration at Ceatec, the device was also used to navigate a slight slope.
Because the sensors can detect whether the device is moving up or down hill, the motors provide some help when walking up the slope and some resistance when going down to stop the descent getting too fast.
The device has been developed with Kowa, an Osaka-based company that claims a 50% share of Japan's market for electric walking assistants.
Martyn Williams covers mobile telecoms, Silicon Valley and general technology breaking news for The IDG News Service. Follow Martyn on Twitter at @martyn_williams. Martyn's e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org