Danny Choo's grand plan to doll up the hobby robot industry

The host of Anime Festival Asia, Japan Mode and Culture Japan talks to Stuff about the future of robotic dolls

Few men pursue their love of a particular culture and then-niche medium to the point where they can make a livelihood out of it. Danny Choo is one such outlier.

His love of Japan culture and anime started from, of all things, a Chinese-dubbed copy of The Super Dimension Fortress Macross in the 80s. With his achievements as a computer engineer at JAL to a Microsoft product manager, it was only inevitable that he started his own business and channel that talks about his love for Japanese culture and anime.

It all clicked when he saw a few sketches of his Microsoft corporate face ideas, drawn by an illustrator from ad agency Hakuhodo. From there, his website’s mascot was born: Mirai Suenaga, who has her own line of Nendoroid and figma figurines, and is also the face of his show Culture Japan.

His next project will be his most ambitious to date: an interactive Android-powered Mirai-branded robot doll. Stuff.tv sat down with Mirai Suenaga’s creator and find out what makes it tick.

Is Mirai Suenaga more than just a face for your blog?

Mirai Suenaga was created to help me promote my website. The merchandising, the t-shirts mainly, only came in because those are things I would want. Everything we make is because I want it for myself. This also led to me really wanting to create the Smart Doll.

How did the Mirai Smart Doll came to be?

It started out as an April Fools’ joke post on my blog this year. Every April Fools’ Day, I try to tell as many lies as possible, each of them had to be as convincing as possible. The post was on How to Mass Produce Your Own Products; a majority of the traffic came from Russia, China and Taiwan. The prank was that the dolls were real, as I was making them before the post. I said to myself and my team. “Let’s make a doll where its inside looks like The Terminator.”

Halfway through, we decided to make it a real thing than just a one-off joke. We used helicopter parts, done some CG renderings pre-production, and so forth. The Japanese robotics industry became very interested in it. I got in touch with most of the country’s robotic engineers. Two months later, we had the world’s first motion test.

What was the tech behind the doll?

One thing that helped us immensely was 3D printing technology. We had the concept of the smart doll printed out to become the template for the molds. Whenever you print something in 3D and use it for molds, there’s going to be a certain amount of shrinkage involved. You need to print the parts six percent bigger; it all depends on your production process and taking into account the injection molding process. Without 3D printing, we’d never be close to ready.

An Android smart doll, we see what you did there!

For Android, it’s open source. At the time, there was no way to pair the Smart Doll and the Mirai Core with iOS. Now with iOS 7, it’s much easier, but we were already knee-deep in using Android.

More after the break...

What do you wish to achieve with this technology?

To get the Smart Doll in every household. These Smart Dolls make people very happy and there are lots of lonely people out there; they don’t need to feel that way anymore. She has a special feature called Idle Mode; she sits there and moves around when she sees his or her owner. She swings her legs, looks around the room and may scratch her head a little bit. It’s like she’s alive. When she’s in your room and you’re working, she’ll just do her own thing. It’s like you have a friend in there.

When your email comes in, or any of your social network accounts like Twitter and Facebook have updates, she’ll let you know. If she’s plugged into your car, she’ll become your GPS and navigator. She’ll even teach you Japanese through small phrases here and there, like when she greets you when you come home. In essence, it’s another take on the “smart” part of the smartphone.

Tell us more about the Mirai Core and Aeon Frame

The Aeon Frame is what’s inside and what makes the whole body move. While her outside is made out of soft vinyl, her frame is made up of motors together with aluminium frame. The type of metal to hold it all together as a finished product hasn’t been confirmed yet. The Mirai Core is her CPU powered by Android.

We’re quite close to releasing and mass-producing her with our own production lines. We worked with different factories, but the majority of it is all in-house. We had a prototype running, but it was just a proof of concept to see if it could really move, considering that her arms and legs are so small. The mass production plans will be ready in a few days time, when I’m back in Japan.

Let’s not mince words here, the Smart Doll is going to cost...

The hobby robot industry isn’t big at the moment, which is one of the reasons why they’re expensive right now. Robots in Japan of this size are US$2000, but then again the parts for the existing models are big and not as thin as the Smart Doll. For now, I’ll leave it up to everyone’s imagination as to how much my doll will cost.

We want to launch the Mirai Core-powered model, the automatic version, in the Summer of next year. We’ll have a manual version out next February. Users can put in whatever OS, machinery or device to make her move. Essentially, it’s a figure.

The doll looks kind of unnerving

I don’t need to convince anyone who isn’t interested in the hobby in the first place to buy them. It would be like me selling tomatoes to people who don’t like tomatoes. And they may be doll fans who don’t want a robot, but it’s really up to them.

Apart from the anime and Japanese culture fans, I’m aiming for the group of folks who appreciate art. They own artistic objects that they have on display like a Ming vase or rare painting from Europe. I have many interactions with folks who do collect, and they’re very interested in having some of these Smart Dolls in their collection.

Let’s talk customisation

Users can change her eye color, as well as change her nails, make-up, and face molds. We can come up with different character types from all this. We can do lots of licensed stuff, but for now I’m only going to focus on Mirai’s original wardrobe and character.

Licensed stuff is a possibility, but there are lots of complications with it. I’m also not into doing homages; the Mirai brand is strong enough on its own.

Images courtesy of Danny Choo.

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