In this in­ven­tor’s fu­ture, laun­dry is no chore

“Laun­droid” ro­bot was in­spired by Kubrick film “2001”

The Denver Post - - BUSINESS -

Hate do­ing laun­dry? Shin Sakane has a so­lu­tion.

The Ja­panese in­ven­tor re­ceived 6 bil­lion yen ($53 mil­lion) from part­ners, in­clud­ing Pana­sonic Corp., last month to ad­vance “the Laun­droid” — a ro­bot Sakane is de­vel­op­ing to not only wash and dry gar­ments, but also sort, fold and neatly ar­range them. The re­frig­er­a­tor-size de­vice even­tu­ally could fill the roles of wash­ing ma­chine, dryer and clothes drawer in peo­ple’s homes.

Sakane, whose ear­lier in­ven­tions in­clude an an­ti­s­nor­ing de­vice and golf clubs made of space ma­te­ri­als, said the fund­ing will bring closer his dream of lib­er­at­ing hu­man­ity from laun­dry. Among his in­spi­ra­tions for the project is the 1968 Stan­ley Kubrick sci-fi clas­sic “2001: A Space Odyssey.” Laun­droid was de­signed to re­sem­ble the mys­te­ri­ous ob­jects in the film that brought tech­nol­ogy to pre­his­toric hu­mans, and the project was orig­i­nally co­de­named “Mono­lith.”

“That’s what we had in mind: a tech­nol­ogy that never ex­isted on Earth de­scends from space,” the 45year-old Sakane, head of Seven Dream­ers Lab­o­ra­to­ries Inc., said in an in­ter­view at his Tokyo of­fice. “If we could automate this, the act of do­ing laun­dry will be gone for good.”

The fund­ing brings to­tal cap­i­tal raised to 7.5 bil­lion yen. No­mura Hold­ings Inc. has been hired for an ini­tial pub­lic of­fer­ing in the “not too dis­tant fu­ture,” Sakane said, adding that Seven Dream­ers Lab­o­ra­to­ries is cur­rently val­ued at about 20 bil­lion yen.

While the full prod­uct is slated for re­lease in 2019, an early ver­sion that can only sort and fold cloth­ing will go on sale in March.

Sakane wouldn’t dis­close how Laun­droid works, but patents show that users dump clothes in a lower drawer and ro­botic arms grab each item as scan­ners look for fea­tures such as but­tons or a col­lar. Once iden­ti­fied, the clothes are folded us­ing slid­ing plates and neatly stacked on up­per shelves for col­lec­tion.

“We tried so many things and none of them worked,” Sakane said. “A ton of team mem­bers quit, say­ing it’s im­pos­si­ble or that I’m crazy. But the ones who re­mained came up with some truly bril­liant ideas.”

The goal is to even­tu­ally get the price of the full ver­sion to less than about 300,000 yen ($2,700). The model go­ing on sale in March prob­a­bly will cost sig­nif­i­cantly more due to higher ini­tial pro­duc­tion costs. Pana­sonic is slated to han­dle the man­u­fac­tur­ing.

Users will still have to do some tasks, such as par­tially but­ton­ing shirts, en­sur­ing clothes aren’t in­side out, and bunch­ing socks be­fore putting them in­side the ma­chine. That’s be­cause even the best ma­chine­learn­ing ap­pli­ca­tions can’t fig­ure out how to fold a pair of socks.

Each item takes about 10 min­utes to fold, which Sakane at­trib­uted to the time nec­es­sary to scan each part of the cloth­ing and com­mu­ni­cate via Wi-Fi with a cen­tral server. He is work­ing to get it down to 3-to-5 min­utes, but said the ro­bot was de­signed to be used pas­sively while users are do­ing some­thing else or out of the house.

Sakane isn’t the only one try­ing to rein­vent the wash­ing. FoldiMate Inc., an Oak Park, Calif.-based ri­val, said it will take about half a minute to de-wrin­kle and fold each gar­ment through its dryer-size ma­chine. It will re­quire users to clip clothes onto a con­veyor-belt from which a ro­bot takes, treats, de-wrin­kles and folds each item onto a neat pile.

The com­pany will start ac­cept­ing pre-or­ders in 2017. The first units should ship by 2018 and cost $700 to $850.

Ap­ple plans to use drones and new in­door nav­i­ga­tion fea­tures to im­prove its Maps ser­vice and catch long­time leader Google, ac­cord­ing to peo­ple fa­mil­iar with the mat­ter.

The Cu­per­tino, Calif.-based com­pany is as­sem­bling a team of robotics and data-col­lec­tion ex­perts that will use drones to cap­ture and up­date map in­for­ma­tion faster than its ex­ist­ing fleet of cam­era-and­sen­sor ladened mini­vans, one of the peo­ple said.

Ap­ple wants to fly drones to do things like ex­am­ine street signs, track changes to roads and mon­i­tor if ar­eas are un­der con­struc­tion, the per­son said. The data col­lected would be sent to Ap­ple teams that rapidly up­date the Maps app to pro­vide fresh in­for­ma­tion to users, the per­son added.

Ap­ple is also de­vel­op­ing new fea­tures for Maps, in­clud­ing views in­side build­ings and im­prove­ments to car nav­i­ga­tion, another per­son fa­mil­iar with the ef­forts said. The peo­ple asked not to be iden­ti­fied. An Ap­ple spokes­woman de­clined to com­ment.

Five years af­ter Google Maps launched on the iPhone, Ap­ple’s map­ping app was in­tro­duced in 2012 with glar­ing er­rors like a gro­cery store marked as a hospi­tal and an in­cor­rect air­port ad­dress. Ap­ple lacked the tech­nol­ogy needed to quickly suck in data from many dif­fer­ent sources to eval­u­ate and change the dig­i­tal maps.

“There’s a huge data-qual­ity is­sue there, and I don’t think we ini­tially ap­pre­ci­ated all the kinds of tech­nol­ogy we would need to do that on an on­go­ing ba­sis,” Craig Fed­erighi, Ap­ple’s se­nior vice pres­i­dent of soft­ware engi­neer­ing, told Fast Com­pany ear­lier this year.

Dig­i­tal maps are cru­cial tools for Ap­ple and Google to at­tract de­vel­op­ers that build pop­u­lar travel, rideshar­ing, and re­tail apps and ser­vices that in­te­grate with the com­pa­nies’ mo­bile op­er­at­ing sys­tems.

Since Ap­ple Maps launched, the com­pany has im­proved the app by more quickly up­dat­ing data, adding a mode for nav­i­gat­ing pub­lic tran­sit sys­tems, im­prov­ing search re­sults, and open­ing the plat­form to out­side ser­vices such as Uber ride-hail­ing and OpenTable restau­rant reser­va­tions.

Be­yond bet­ter data col­lec­tion, Ap­ple is de­vel­op­ing an in­door map­ping view that would al­low users to nav­i­gate air­ports, and other high­traf­fic build­ings like mu­se­ums us­ing iPhones, ac­cord­ing to another per­son.

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