MADE in Japan – Volume 3
This week: “Life Sensing” Hot Water Pots, Circuitbent Pachinko Machines, Otona no Kagaku: a “Science for Adults” magazine that comes with a toy, Maywa Denki, Make Your Own Soba, that Famicom Guitar, Funny Wall-mount PC, and an iPod/Boombox Mashup.

ipot.jpgMaking Sure Elderlies are Still Alive by Wirelessly Tracking Their Hot Water Pot Usage
Remember all that talk about how the wireless revolution was going to let average appliances like toasters and blenders communicate with a central system? Just like the promise of floating skateboards, I’m still waiting for this one to become a reality. But wouldn’t you know it, they’ve done it in Japan, with a hot water dispenser. So what is this hot water dispenser saying? “Don’t worry. Grandma is still alive.” Zojirushi, maker of fine fuzzy logic rice cookers and other smart appliances, has come out with a service called Mimamori that is designed to help the urban, tech-savvy generation of Japanese make sure their elderly relatives (many of whom live in rural locales) are safely going about their daily business by tracking their hot water usage through a surreptitiously-placed hot water dispenser called the i-Pot that wirelessly transmits data via a cellular data network to a web server which in turn sends updates to their concerned relatives.

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(“Know your parent’s health with the i-Pot”)

In Japan, using a hot water dispenser is considered to be so universal and commonplace that the failure of an elderly person to turn on the hot water dispenser in the morning or to turn it off at night warrants a legitimate cause for worry. Is grandma ok? This service will send two updates per day to up to three separate email addresses giving usage data on the Zojirushi i-Pot hot water heater (yes, it is called the i-Pot, and yes, it sounds a lot like “iPod” in Japanese too). These status updates are available via email or a web service that will even graph your loved ones’ appliance use, telling you when they turned the heater on, when they pumped water out of it, allowing concerned relatives to track trends in grandma or grandpa’s hot water drinking habits.

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(“It got turned on especially early this morning, huh.”)

The i-Pot transmits its information through DoCoMo’s DoPa wireless packet communication service which is then submitted to a specialized server where status emails are sent out and usage can be tracked via a custom homepage for service subscribers. It costs 5,250 yen (49 USD) for initial registration with the service, plus another 3,150 yen (29 USD) per month. But…the cost of not having to call grandma every day to make sure she’s still alive: Priceless. Right?

The device is made to look like a regular hot water dispenser, and the product literature shows that the transmitting device is stealthily hidden within the appliance. Although it is never explicitly stated, I assume that you’re supposed to give this to grandma or grandpa without telling them about its tracking abilities. This immediately made me dream up slapstick scenarios in which an elderly person is perfectly happy with their current hot water pot and refuses the gift from their young relatives. Maybe grandma unplugs the i-Pot and starts using her old trusty water heater after they leave, causing her relatives to send in the EMT squad, Seinfeld-esque disaster/hilarity ensues…

What is really unique about this appliance is that it tracking capability will work virtually anywhere in Japan where there is cell phone service. But this got my maker mind thinking, if you were to design a similar device for use, say, in the United States, what appliance would you track the usage of and how would you wirelessly track its use? What do elderly people in the Western world do every day? Turn on the TV? Open the fridge? Would a US device have to use a cellular data network as well? (some grandpas don’t got no WiFi…) Anyone have any sweet ideas? I’m sure there’s a maker out there who can figure something out. Will some Arduino/wireless genius prototype it this week? Make me proud.

Via Trends in Japan and Mimamori.

Circuit Bending Pachinko Machines
Pachinko is somewhat of an obsession for many in Japan, and the craze for new pachinko machines in pachinko parlors leads to a very constant turnover of new machines coming in and old machines going out, making them them a prime candidate for “artistic repurposing” projects such as circuit bending. Pachinko machines are part pinball, part video slot machines, and part music makers, and as anyone who has stepped foot in a pachinko parlor can attest, these machines are LOUD and good at making noise to begin with. YouTube user DevgonAsh has taken to circuit bending outdated pachinko machines, tweaking everything from their sounds, their video screens, to their mechanical motors and solenoids and linking them up various controllers, matrices, and even regular old spoons.

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Otona no Kagaku
Translated as “Science for Adults,” Otona no Kagaku is a lavish science mook (ya know, magazine/book) published by Gakken that is bundled with a “supplement” (the adult nerd equivalent of a cool Happy Meal toy) bonus that corresponds to the theme for every issue. For example, Vol. 17 came with a mini Theremin kit (pictured below) and that issue documented the strange history and science behind this instrument.

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As if publishing a sweet magazine wasn’t enough, Gakken also has quite a few DIY kits that they sell in Japan, including several educational electronics blocks, traditional Japanese puppet kits, engineering kits including the Crab, Centipede, and Inchworm, as well as the Sterling Engine and Vacuum Engine kits, a tube amplifier kit, a radio kit, and a gramaphone that writes on a variety of different materials, including old CDs. Volume 18 of Otona no Kagaku comes with a small wind-power generator kit to power an LED, pictured below:

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At 2,300 yen (21.5 USD) per issue, this magazine seems to give quite the bang for the buck (or should I say, yeahs for the yen? Sorry…). The supplement “prizes” for past issues have included items such as a stereo pinhole camera, a mini tea-serving robot, a jet boat, a crystal radio, a Sterling engine, a plankton farming set, and a DaVinci helicopter. They have published English PDF instructions for quite a few of the kits that can be downloaded from the “downloads” section of website (the ones available in English are at the bottom). These kits can be found at a few specialty retailers outside of Japan, but tend to be quite pricey and are frequently out of stock, so let’s hope that maybe there will better distribution of these kits in the future… hint, hint. Despite any difficulty in purchasing the Gakken kits outside of Japan, people seem to be getting them anyway, as evidenced by the online presence of groups like the Gakken Otona No Kagaku Science Kits Flickr pool, etc.

Related:

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Maywa Denki
Since 1993, the fascinating art project/musical group/electronics company founded by brothers Masamichi and Nobumichi Tosa known as Maywa Denki has used solenoid knockers, relays, and other clever electronics hacks to make musical instruments or “products” that are used in their performances (or “product demonstrations” as they are called in Maywa-speak). In Japanese the name “Maywa Denki” means “Maywa Electric” and sounds like the name of an electronics store, and this is not a coincidence: Maywa Denki is modeled and named after the now-defunct electronics company that was run by the Tosa brothers’ father until 1979. Never lacking in conceptual continuity, the members of Maywa Denki wear blue work uniforms that imitate the outfits worn by electronics store employees. Their products, referred to as “nonsense machines,” are not just used in their performances, but are also a part of the all-encompassing nature of the Maywa Denki vision, as they spread the gospel of Maywa Denki through lectures and workshops on making nonsense machines and other “funny musical instruments.” According to the “Education” section of the Maywa Denki website:

We organize various kinds of lectures and workshops to pass along our “manufacturing” and “method of conceiving ideas.”

Lecture:
Lectures are called “Maywa Denki product demonstrations” in which we make comments on our products and toys humorously as we actually demonstrate using a slide show explaining why they were produced in approximately 80 minutes.

Nonsense Idea Conceiving Workshop:
In this workshop, attendants think about totally useless tools using a “nonsense invention sheet” and actually make them with their hands. At the end, they make a laughter-provoking presentation.

Making Funny Musical Instruments:
We make funny instruments that are full of Maywa-ism with children using the materials which you can get at a 100-yen shop [the equivalent of a dollar store in the US – md]. Ex: Chiwawa Whistle, a whistle which makes the sound of barking dogs.”

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Can you imagine Maywa Denki visiting to give one of their lectures at your school? Nerdgasm, right?

Standing on their own not just as performance devices but as pieces of art, Maywa Denki’s “BITMAN” and “GACHACON” pieces are going to be displayed in the “DESIGN AND THE ELASTIC MIND” exhibition at the MoMA from February 24th to May 12th. This is the kind of conceptual art project/band that really takes a combination of the maker ethic and artistic aesthetics to the next level. One notable example of this is Maywa Denki’s use of a three-tiered pyramid of “product development” where there are prototypes, multiples, and actual marketable products.

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This articulation from prototype to finished product is inspirational to makers everywhere, because it illustrates that experimental tinkering can in fact lead to a finished, marketable “product,” should that be your goal.
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But they aren’t just about selling toys. Maywa Denki’s raison d’être still seems to be performing live, as these pictures illustrate:
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In this wonderful video clip, the BBC’s Adam and Joe visit the Meiwa Denki workshop, and brilliant weirdness promptly ensues:

What I love about this video is that the music he plays at the end is so unabashedly pop, not at all what you might expect from the brain of an artsy inventor/electronics tweaker. Brilliant, weird, artfully crafted, and (as evidenced by the Newton Gun in the video above) very, very funny.

Related:

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How to Make Soba Noodles
Soba (buckwheat noodles) are a staple of Japanese cuisine. With some buckwheat flour and regular wheat flour on hand, this how-to walks you through making these noodles yourself. Although soba noodles are widely available outside of Japan in its dried form from most Asian markets, there is something to be said for eating freshly-made noodles (for example, being able to snobbily say to your friends “yeah, I make my own soba noodles, they’re better that way…”), and they’re not very hard to make. And just in case you were wondering, the gigantic knife pictured above is not required to make soba noodles, although it certainly might make you feel more authentic.

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The Family Comguitar

Here’s a very detailed step-by-step overview of how a fellow who goes by the name Mitsumatsu made a guitar that resembles an old Famicom (abbreviation of “Family Computer”) video game system. The headstock is made to look like a controller, and the body is the console, complete with an extra controller holder and a cartridge slot. Making a guitar is in itself no small task, but Mitsumatsu-san has also gone to great lengths to really make this guitar look like a Famicom, and he did pretty much everything with wood, even when it would have been much easier to use plastic. It’s all in Japanese, but there are a lot of pictures every step along the way, so you should be able to get the idea.

Related:

  • A collection Famicom songs played guitar-god style, a la Joe Satriani & friends. Click on the red cartridge to hear the hot licks. Straight shreddin’.

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Funny Wall-Mount Computer Cover-up
OH HAI. Hide that unsightly computer hardware with a beautiful kitty picture and some other nice stuff! Via Gizmodo Japan.

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iPod Boombox Mashup
A Japanese hackster by the name of Saito stuck an iPod dock inside a boombox and managed to maintain remote control ability as well as pretty good visibility of the iPod screen. Via Gizmodo Japan.

Well, that’s it for this week. Know of something that might be Made in Japan-worthy? Red rover, red rover, send linkage right over.