Showa University has announced Showa Hanako 2, a robot dental patient  fabricated by robot maker Tmsuk. Compared with its predecessor Showa Hanako 1, this robot is designed to be more realistic, functional, and easier to use. Showa Hanako 2 will actually be sold by the dental supply company The Yoshida Dental Manufacturing.
The main features of the new robot are a silicone skin and mouth lining by Orient Industry, a maker of love dolls. The tongue and arms each have two degrees of freedom, and the robot overall has ten, enabling it to make natural movements, like shaking its head and choking.
“We’ve been in contact with Orient Industry for over a decade, since before we produced Hanako 1. Even then, we thought we’d need professionals to help with the molding. If you don’t try to make a robot’s face look realistic, it doesn’t have the same effect on users psychologically. How doctors and students actually feel in the presence of a patient is a really big factor. It makes quite a difference if students can train while experiencing the same kind of tension they’d feel about a human patient – thinking, for example, “I’m really going to make this treatment work,” or “Even the smallest mistake would be unforgivable.” We think it’s OK for people to be tense while training, and to make mistakes, because, well, this is a robot.” Showa Hanako 2 has several major improvements. The skin has been changed from PVC to silicone, and the tongue and cheek linings have been formed in one piece. And the head, which previously moved only pneumatically, now has a motor. “We considered the motions of the tongue and mouth lining separately. To prevent water getting into the machinery and causing problems, we wanted to form those parts in one piece if possible. But the molding technology for doing that wasn’t available to us. Orient Industry had that technology, and it helped us a lot.” Among the robot’s autonomous actions, it can blink, roll its eyes, sneeze, shake its head, cough, move its tongue, and get tired of keeping its mouth open. In addition, the robot now has a conversation capability, using speech recognition technology from Raytron. “People choke if you put your fingers down their throat, which is called the gag reflex. We’ve reproduced that reflex. Students are taught about this from textbooks, but it’s hard to teach them what actually happens. So we’ve built a choking capability into this robot.” “Even when we first produced Showa Hanako, we were asked to sell it in four or five countries. But the problem was how we could keep offering maintenance, which is Tmsuk’s job, if the robot came into widespread use. However, we thought that Showa Hanako should be sold through coordination among the government and organizations involved, as a technology from Japan, rather than from an individual university or company. Regarding actual feature development, speech recognition has gone very well, even better than we expected. We’ve found that the robot can recognize a variety of words, and accumulate a vocabulary. This will be really helpful when we do data mining from medical histories and patient databases. So we have the feeling that a new industry will be born in the medical field.”