If you think dolls are just for little girls and quirky adult collectors, inventor Danny Choo’s new creation might just change your mind. The automatic version of the Mirai Suenaga Smart Doll is part doll, part robot – and she’s definitely more interesting than your average Barbie. While there have already been toys that move and talk, the Mirai Suenaga does so much more. Choo believes it is the first robotic interactive doll of its size that you can control using an Android smartphone.
Choo’s Smart Doll will be like a mini personal assistant – able to notify you of Facebook and Twitter updates, remind you about appointments, help you with driving directions, link with other smart gadgets, and even offer language lessons. Sure, your mobile device can do all that, but can you dress it up in its own line of custom-made outfits? Not to mention the attention you’ll get when the Smart refrigerator-linked doll sitting next to you suddenly informs you that it’s time to get more milk.
The Mirai Suenaga Smart Doll draws together influential aspects of contemporary Japanese pop culture: anime, ball-jointed dolls (BJD), robots, and fashion. BJD are dolls with ball and socket joints that permit a wide range of movement. Volks introduced modern BJD to Japan in 1999, and by 2008 the company was making sales totaling around $50 million a year. Well known among these types of doll are the Super Dollfies, which have an almost fanatical fan base. With prices upwards of $400, sometimes rising into the thousands, these dolls are serious business.
Choo – who is in fact the son of shoe designer Jimmy Choo – presents two television shows in Asia, in addition to creating mobile platforms marketing his own products through his “Culture Japan” brand. He’s also a member of the Creative Industries Internationalization Committee for METI (Japanese Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry) and is passionate about promoting Japanese culture around the globe. Choo first became drawn to dolls through Volks’ Dollfies Dreams in 2008. “Thanks to Volks, I have discovered a whole new world, which has enabled me to connect with people from all over,” he has said on his blog.
“You know – I really like dolls,” says Choo. “I like them so much that I’ve always wanted one of my own mascot characters.” He was serious enough about this to approach several manufacturers; however, they weren’t keen; so, he says, “I decided to make them myself just like my line of T-shirts.” But Choo didn’t come up with just any old doll. The Mirai Suenaga Smart Doll will boast two versions: the “automatic” electrically powered interactive doll, and a more standard “manual” doll – powered only by the imagination of its owner.
The Mirai Suenaga doll’s appearance is based on the Culture Japan – and now also Japan Tourism – mascot of the same name and is inspired by an anime-style drawing by Japanese illustrator Tasuku Iizuki. Choo crafted his doll using CAD and Zbrush software, which is commonly employed in the development of animations and games. One of the benefits of this software, according to Choo, is its ability to fashion “a shapely doll body, which is very, very important.” He also admits that there was a steep learning curve at the beginning, but he discovered a lot of information with the help of trusty Google.
A lot of care went into designing the doll, which is about 23.5 inches (60 cm) tall. For example, when making a doll by hand, both sides of the face will appear a little different from each other – just as you find with real people. But because Choo utilized software to create his doll, he had to use a specially designed system to ensure that the sides weren’t identical. Choo even gave his doll good lines on its hands, representing wellbeing and prosperity in palmistry. Mirai’s long neck, like the long necks on other dolls, has been conceived so that it doesn’t appear oddly absent when she wears collared shirts.
Once the designs were complete, 3D printing was employed to shape the doll’s body out of resin. For those who don’t know much about such processes, this involves using digital light processing (DLP) to harden sections of liquid resin corresponding to the 3D model. Once the resin parts were made, Choo used them to create the molds, which would then be utilized to produce the soft vinyl doll parts. A friend of Choo’s made the resin eyes, while another applied the doll’s makeup. Choo chose resin rather than painted eyes because he was more attracted to their aesthetic. Once dressed, the regular manual Mirai Suenaga doll is complete, but the Smart Doll still needs to be fitted with its robotic components.
It’s one thing to 3D print and assemble a doll but quite another to create an interactive Smart Doll. Fortunately, prior to his current occupation, Choo had a role with the scientific journal Nature, through which he made many helpful contacts at Carnegie Mellon University’s Robotics Institute. News of Choo’s Smart Doll brought him to the attention of others in the robotics scene, and as a result he obtained even more assistance. Soon he was able to start developing the Smart Doll’s robotic OSS (open source software).
While the manual Smart Doll has a strong Polyoxymethylene frame, the automatic version will house some 24 motors, which will work to move its torso, legs and shoulders. These motors will be held by what Choo calls the AeonFrame, and each one will have its own controller. At first, the doll will be powered externally via a socket at the rear of its neck, but Choo would like his brainchild to eventually be USB battery-chargeable like a mobile phone. If a phone battery is inadequate, an alternative could be to charge up the doll with a laptop battery. The doll will have a CPU board and be equipped with Bluetooth – enabling connection to an Android device.
Sensors in the doll’s head will allow it to respond to touch, while arm sensors are for ascertaining the doll’s location. Choo hopes the Mirai Suenaga will also feature Kinect motion-sensing technology – used in Microsoft’s Xbox 360 – as well as acoustic sensing abilities. The plan is for the doll to be capable of responding to movement and reacting to speech – in order, for example, to greet its owner. Doll users will be able to download content including specific movements and phrases. The speaker will likely be located in the doll’s rather ample chest.
One of the challenges when designing the Smart Doll’s inner workings was to ensure that they are small enough to fit inside the doll yet tough enough to withstand repeated use. Parts like those belonging to the frame also had to be readily available, rather than custom made, thus keeping production costs down. The motors do make a slight “whirring” sound when engaged in movement, but Choo sees that as a positive; after all, it is a robotic doll.
Every part of the Mirai Suenaga doll is painstakingly fashioned by Choo himself; from the vinyl body, wigs and robotics, to the clothing and, of course, footwear. Choo says he still remembers how to craft shoes from learning under his father’s expert tutelage. All in all, the Japanese pop culturist estimates that it has taken a year to put together the Mirai Suenaga. As for his views on his critics, “Many folks think that these dolls are creepy,” says Choo. “I personally think that folks giving up on their hobbies and interests just because of what others think is way more creepy.” Choo would like to see his Mirai Suenaga dolls some day become as instantly recognizable and iconic as Barbie.
Anyone who is eager to own a Mirai Suenaga Smart Doll shouldn’t have to wait too long. Choo says on his blog, “I need to ‘test run’ Mirai before she goes on sale to see if the design withstands everyday doll ownership – does she tip over when placed on a shoulder, does she fall over easily, is it easy to change clothes, etc.” This will go on for some months because, Choo says, “I want to make sure that we release a solid product onto the market.” The doll has already garnered quite a bit of attention in Japan, including being featured on television there.
While the exact release date for the manual Smart Doll has not yet been made public, development is all but complete. The Mirai Suenaga should be out in spring 2014, with the automatic Smart Doll set for release either towards the end of 2014 or the beginning of 2015. The doll parts will be made in Japan but assembled elsewhere to minimize expenses. Choo hopes that more people in his homeland will create their own dolls based on original characters – ones that will become popular around the world. If the Mirai Suenaga is as successful as it seems poised to be, it will certainly be an inspiration for them to try.