By >RENO J. TIBKE
Japanese Robots: Did Sagawa Electronics’ Power Jacket MK3 Rip-Off Team Skeletonics?
Sagawa Electronics’ new human exoskeleton, the much publicized Power Jacket MK3, just might have gone too far with that whole sincerest form of flattery thing. The imitative compliment they’re paying Team Skeletonics, an earlier-on-the-scene maker, isn’t exactly welcome.
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Exoskeletons: We Want Them (and always have)
Amplifying human physical efficacy through technology, be it for strength, endurance, defense, sensory enhancement, or what have you, is as old as technology itself. From the dawn of tools, to a loincloth, to pants, to stronger pants, to chainmail, to hardened steel and synthetic armors, to force-enhancing, wearable, powered machines – the artificial “exoskeletons” for our fleshy mammalian bodies. There are any number of potential uses: rescue, military, law enforcement, awesome fun, etc.
While several American and Western European exoskeletons are in R&D, Japan, with a team including Cyberdyne’s HAL Suits, Panasonic’s Power Loaders, Honda’s Assist devices, Suidobashi Heavy Industries’ Kuratas mech, plus the two subjects mentioned herein, is taking and sprinting away with the cake. This surprises no one on earth.
From Japan: A New Kind of Exoskeleton, and… A New Kind of Exoskeleton(?)
The word “exoskeleton” implies adherence to a fundamental design template, and most systems amplify or augment the arms or legs only, sometimes both. Of various bulkiness, a given exoskeletal chassis is usually about the same size as the wearer and tends to augment only specific large muscle groups.
But, in 2011, a small Okinawan company, Team Skeletonics, completed development on a novel means of means of augmenting and projecting not just our legs or arms or both, but our entire physicality. Their Skeletonics Suit is not just something to be worn on your limbs, but a device one enters and thereby transforms into a 2.5 m/8’2″ tall mechanical presence. An amusing YouTube video was made. The suits were offered for sale on July 7, 2013.
Then, last week, a Tokyo company, Sagawa Electronics, Inc., completed development on a novel means of means of augmenting and projecting not just our legs or arms or both, but our entire physicality. Their Power Jacket MK3 is not just something to be worn on your limbs, but a device one enters and thereby transforms into a 2.25 m/7’4″ tall mechanical presence. Also. An amusing YouTube video was made. Also. The suits were offered for sale on July 8, 2013. Yes, also.
Before digging too far into what the above phrasal redundancy implies, and bearing in mind that Team Skeletonics went public with their device well over two years ago, let’s have a look:
Okay, to those not singing in the robo-geekery choir, these might look like considerably different devices. But, for those of us all day watching robot videos on YouTube (it’s super serious research, mom!), it was glaringly obvious that the Power Suit MK3 is at best a tribute, homage, or a very specifically inspired work; at worst, a brazenly bootlegged facsimile of the Skeletonics Suit.
Inspired Emulation or Infringement?
In barely over a week’s time, Sagawa Electronics has received vastly more press for the Power Jacket MK3 than the Team Skeletonics Suit has in over two years. Understandably so, Team Skeletonics is more than a bit prickly about it.
Contacted for comment about the similarities and accusations of exoskeletal piracy being aimed at their competitor, Team Skeletonics first reminded us of their mantra and self-given mandate: “To be a starter to spread new helpful technology for the world,” and made sure to mention that “We are happy.” Which was funny.
But then it got a bit more serious.
They were eager to point out that they have no affiliation with Sagawa Electronics, and that the year-old firm’s claim to “The first powered suit available to the public” are false. They then conceded that, while there’s something of an uproar in robotics circles here in Japan, and while it does appear that their work has been copied, there’s not much the small company can do. Born from one of Japan’s STEM-focused high-school/college hybrid kosen schools, the 5-man company seems pretty powerless to take on a firm backed by the prestigious Chiba Institute of Technology (CIT).
The most profound thing they had to share, perhaps in an effort to avoid accusations of sour grapes or simple jealousy over Sagawa Electronics’ superior marketing skills, was this publicly available archived blog post, allegedly attributable to a then CIT grad student, the eventual creator of Sagawa Electronics’ Power Jacket MK3:
“This picture of the AEE MK2 prototype carriage is basically a copy of the Skeletonics frame system.”
(translated; full text below*)
That’s nearly 2 years ago, and more than half a year after Team Skeletonics went public with their suit. Amid numerous accusations and inquiries, two days ago Sagawa Electronics made this statement via Twitter:
“To Whom it May Concern: the Power Jacket MK3’s underlying structure has no relation to that of Team Skeletonics. Please bear this in mind when making inquiries. We apologize for not clarifying this sooner.”
(translated; full text below**)
So, On One Hand: Damn, busted.
When asked if they could confirm or deny the accuracy and/or attributability of the excerpted blog post, Sagawa Electronics’ just kinda… skipped that question.
Maybe because, should one strip off those white plastic panels, we’re looking at nearly the same device. The new Power Jacket MK3 effectively is a Team Skeletonics Suit equipped with master/slave-actuated servo motors, i.e., Skeletonics is a manually controlled direct force-feedback system powered by the operator, and the Power Jacket MK3 is fly-by-wire. Mechanically though, they’re very, very similar products.
Structural and mechanical similarities become even more glaring when you see the suits in motion, so have a watch – and again, bear in mind the two-year difference.
SKELETONICS DEMO – Published on Nov 15, 2011
POWER JACKET MK3 PROMO – Published on Jul 5, 2013
They’re both fun, but the videos do present somewhat damning evidence; seems like Sagawa got caught KIRFing in public.
But On the Other Hand: In truth, Sagawa Electronics really isn’t an evil tech pirate…
Contacted for comment, Sagawa Electronics indicated that they spent a year developing the MK3 specifically, and that its mechanics are considerably different from that of Team Skeletonics’ suits. They do admit, however, that earlier versions, e.g., the prototype MK2 chassis pictured above, were in fact copies of Team Skeletonics’ work (for which they claim to have been given explicit permission).
Now, for a third party observing maker B copying maker A’s work, or, if you’re the one doing the copying, it’s much easier to dismissively rationalize that Imitation is the Sincerest form of Flattery. But, if you’re the one being imitated, copied, perhaps outright ripped off, if you’re Team Skeletonics, that platitude does little to assuage feelings of, well, you know, being pissed that someone stole your stuff.
To their credit, Sagawa Electronics does seem fairly conciliatory about the whole thing, so just maybe, maybe they should have been a bit more upfront about their inspiration and tossed some acknowledgement in Team Skeletonics’ direction. They took a good idea, and in a few ways, totally did improve it. It’s just the the Team Skeletonics device was so very unique, and from a distance, physical or conceptual, the suits do look almost exactly the same.
They’re not thieves or bad guys, but given their way more than healthy dose of inspiration from Team Skeletonics’ work, Sagawa should have spent a little less on their slickly produced, schoolgirl-exploiting, tongue-in-scarred-cheek HD YouTube video, and a little more on paying dues to the 2.5 m/8’2″ shoulders they’re standing on.
So, moving forward: Sagawa Electronics, maybe be a bit more considerate; Team Skeletonics, time to let go, and maybe invest in an HD camera. Let both parties embrace that everything, everything, everything is a remix – and go focus on making more awesome stuff.
This Has Been More than a Robo-Geek Fight & Competition Breeds Innovation (which Japan needs)
After about 5 minutes of hijinks and goofing off in Sagawa Electronics’ promo piece, the second video above, the host goes a bit into the vital role robotics and cybernetics play now and will continue playing in keeping Japan’s economy afloat – nothing at all to joke about – you gotta big picture this stuff. As Japan’s population declines, innovations in general robotics and this kind of human enhancement actually are going to help prop up the world’s 3rd-largest economy.
And speaking of innovation, Team Skeletonics might be upset, but they’re hardly sitting on their hands and pouting about how they’ve been globally upstaged two years after cranking out the analog version of essentially the same product. Exonnecs, their next big deal project, a 3.5 m/11′ tall, 200 kg/440 lb, transforming exoskeleton that, in mobile mode, will hit 80 KPH/50 MPH, is already underway. Akihabara News’ robotics coverage will keep you hip.
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*Full Japanese Text Attributed to Sagawa Electronics’ President:
「2011年10月18日 テーマ：AEE Mk-2 試作２号機の写真です。 完全なパクリモデルです。この機体でスケルトニクスの特性を概ね理解しました。 多分、両腕をバランサーとして使える分、竹馬より機動力は高いです。 あと、大切なこと 初めてでも大丈夫 ちゃんと乗って歩けました、本当に拡張されています。 でも、筋肉がプルプルします。明らかに過負荷。ま、欲張って延長しすぎたのが原因かと。 スケルトニクスの１．５倍はあります。（見た目比較） あ、ジャンプも出来ましたよ。重くなってるのにジャンプできるんです。 なんでだろ・・・ ちなみに、１ヶ月で完成。前例があると簡単。」
Source: http://ameblo.jp/aee-me; Provided by Team Skeletonics
**Full Japanese Text from Sagawa Electronics’ Twitter Feed:
「お知らせ 弊社のパワードジャケットはTeam Skeletonics(スケルトニクス)様の機体とは関係はありません。 問い合わせの際は間違いの無いようお願いいたします。 また、対応が遅れましたことを深くお詫び申し上げます。」
Source: Official Sagawa Electronics Twitter Account @poweredjacket
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Reno J. Tibke is the founder and operator of Anthrobotic.com and a contributor at the non-profit Robohub.org.
Resources & Sources: Team Skeletonics; Sagawa Electronics, Inc.
Images: Team Skeletonics; Sagawa Electronics, Inc.