Is the fashion industry ready for a robot takeover? A new robotic mannequin developed by South Korea's IMD Communications may give rivals from Japan some competition. It comes in three varieties, each named after an Indian god and programmed with its own modeling behaviors. Endrani is described as a 30-something woman who exudes elegance, Dipani highlights women's confidence and creativity, and Marian – the most dynamic of the three – symbolizes strength and the outdoors.
Besides its eye-catching movements, the robot's moving limbs makes it easier for store clerks to dress and undress the mannequin. It's likely that such robots will only be displayed at high-end boutiques given the added expense, but they're already making a splash with customers at test locations. The company is conducting customer surveys and gauging sales data until February 2013.
Japan leads the way
In Japan, robotic mannequins have been around since 2001, when Tatsuya Matsui (Flower Robotics, SGI) developed one called Palette. That robot can be rented for four days for US$3,000 or purchased for $50,000. Naturally, such an expensive robot hasn't proven a huge success for the company, but a smaller version designed specifically to model jewelry is also available.
In 2008 the New Industry Research Organization Kobe developed its own robotic mannequin, which is the only one with moving legs. It stood 160 cm (5 feet, 3 inches) tall and had 16 degrees of freedom, allowing it to move its neck, waist, and limbs. The idea was to boost Kobe's local fashion and robotics industry.
One of the problems with robotic mannequins is they are much more expensive compared to the old-fashioned models. Another Japanese company called Eager Co. Ltd. lowered the cost of entry with its D+ropop, which sells for US$5,200 (and rents for three days for $1,000). It managed to keep costs down by building the mannequin out of cardboard sheets – the lighter material means the designers were able to use hobby-level servo motors to actuate its limbs.
And speaking of hobby servos, a hobbyist known for his miniature wrestling robots started a company called Sugiura Machine Design Office, which markets a line of robotic mannequins. Mr. Sugiura was able to keep his costs down by manufacturing the mannequins' limbs on a 3D printer and used hobby robot servos to power their joints.
No word on the price of the Korean mannequins, but the project is supported in part by South Korea's Ministry of Knowledge Economy and the Ministry of Culture, Sports, and Tourism, which has plans to promote the robot fashion business internationally next year. Also announced this week (though it is unclear if it is part of the same initiative), a group of researchers at the Korea Institute of Science and Technology are working on a simple upper-body mannequin called iMate, that uses a Microsoft Kinect sensor to copy the arm movements of people standing in front of it.