See the original story in Japanese.
A product from Japan created quite the stir at Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas and CEATEC JAPAN in Tokyo this year.
It is Laundroid.
The “harmony” of clothing analysis, artificial intelligence (AI), and robotics blend together to produce a “fully automatic clothes folding machine.” Japan technological alliance “seven dreamers laboratories’ is the developer. The product details have been released in various places, so I won’t get into that, but as the name says, “It’s a robot that folds clothes. No further explanation is needed.”
The company announced a partnership with Panasonic (TSE:6752) and Daiwa House (TSE:1925) last year, and together established the joint venture Seven Dreamers Laundroid with plans to begin sales by reservation for their first machine “Laundroid 1” in March of 2017.
The developer, Seven Dreamers, announced on November 14th the securement of 6 billion yen (around $60 million US) in funds from SBI Investment, in addition to Panasonic and Daiwa House. The shareholding ratios and payment date remain undisclosed.
The concept began in 2005, and with the realization of “folding” from 2013, Laundroid was born. I heard from Seven Dreamers CEO Shin Sakane about the road it took to get here.
The reason for creating something never seen before was “a comment from my wife”
I came today with the idea of asking straight out, “What happened to make robots fold the laundry?” So, what happened? (with a laugh)
Well, to be straight, “It’s now possible to recognize clothes using artificial intelligence,” is maybe the simplest answer I can give.
I see. Let’s go through the process. How did the idea first come to you?
Before that, first permit me to talk a little about what criteria the Seven Dreamers esteem. For us, there are three criterion for “Things that have not been realized yet but could change our lives, and also enrich them.” The technological hurdles are high and our policy is to clear them.
That’s true. You’ve made something that sets high hurdles.
Since first coming up with the idea, I was thinking about different markets to satisfy all the criteria. Looking around we see many products targeted at men. Starting now and into the future, ‘women’, ‘the elderly’, and ‘children’ are the keywords that will become important.
After thinking, the idea that maybe the answer lies within the home came to me and, while I don’t usually talk with my wife about work, I casually mentioned it to her. What do you wish you had? She came back just as fast, “Of course, it has to be a machine that folds the laundry.
Ah, so your wife is the reason!
The hurdle was higher than I had imagined (laughingly). But, if it’s something I can do, if I use the then current mechatronics and neural networks, which is what AI was called at the time, I thought it might be possible.
This was that same day, right?
Yes. It was in 2005. But, after a number of years passing it was really hard to hear “You still haven’t managed it?” (laughingly)
A Decade of Development and the impact of “Lehman Shock”
After that development began. It took about 10 years, right?
Yes. After my wife said it I had an aha moment, and the next day I lightly searched through patents and things and while there was evidence of it, it seemed like no one had really followed through on it.
So you thought you had a chance.
At the time, on the homepage of a certain home appliance maker there was a corner for ‘appliances 30 years in the future’, and it was there, so maybe.
Even after looking through global patents, no one was doing it, so that’s it, I’ll do it. At the time I thought it would take 5 years to come together. However, that estimate was too optimistic. And also with the fall of Lehman Brothers in 2009, we had to reduce our personnel.
In the first place you needed funds. Lots of people begin by accumulating funds, what about Laundroid?
At the time, the business I had launched in the healthcare field was earning money for me. Up until very recently this continued to produce a fair amount of money, making it easier for me to start companies like Laundroid.
I see. To what extent had the development proceeded before the personnel reduction caused by the collapse of Lehman Brothers?
We were able to fold t-shirts. However, this was the premise of (robots) being able to understand that the clothing was a t-shirt. But, yeah, there’s no real meaning in that. From that start I was thinking to incorporate this into a dryer, but it wouldn’t work if the robot couldn’t recognize the crumpled clothing. This is where I hit a wall.
Did you ever think about quitting after the overlap of technical difficulties and the shock of the fall of Lehman Brothers?
I suppose normally management would make the decision to stop. But I really thought we could do it. Also, I couldn’t stop after working on it for four years straight. We seriously debated this within the company. In the end, after two years the company saw a V-shaped recovery and we were able to increase staff again.
The Technical Team Overcomes the Barriers
About the problem of “recognizing crumpled clothing” that probably made the technical team want to pull their hair out, how did you clear this hurdle?
Even when laundry is all crumpled and mixed together, if you look at the collar you know what it is, right? Even I can do that, so a robot must be able to. We continued machine learning, but it was impossible.
Then I received a proposal from the development team, “Not mixed together, but if we try it one at a time we might be able to do it.”
Were you able to do it by separating them?
Because of that we changed our approach, but even then it was unrecognizable. There were too many patterns because of the flexibility (of clothing). We weren’t getting any closer to an answer.
It does seem impossible (with a laugh). How did you overcome it?
At the end of the process you come away with folded clothes, right? Then you can spread it out. This is what we needed to make recognizable. Then again and again we changed the circumstances. From here there were real challenges. (Writer’s note: The details are confidential here, so it will remain unwritten.)
From the folded state to the original crumpled state, one step at a time, it took 5 years. How many times did you have breakthroughs?
Hmm, about once every two years. Just as soon as we’d say, “Yes! We did it!” the next wall would come with an, “Ugh.” (laughingly)
That must have been difficult. But you did it. At what point were you able to say, “It’s folded! Yes!”
Actually it was done in stages, so it’s difficult to choose one point, but if we make it the day we were able to recognize a laid out t-shirt and then fold it, that was around the end of 2013. At that time, if we didn’t procure funds things would have become grave, so the day of the presentation for investors was unbearable. I was nervous about whether it would work well or not.
Thus, in May of 2014 with the first presentation of Laundroid they secured funds from their first outside shareholders. After this, they would go on to partner with Panasonic, Daiwa House, and SBI Investment, etc.
A Judgement Just in Time, The Last Requirements
To wrap it up, in a situation where most people probably would have quit, you made a judgement and now have created “a world where robots can fold clothes.” What do you think is important when making such a decision?
I am, after all, a man of science, so I make sure to accurately look at the numbers. But, when trying to make something that has never been made before, there are many things that can not be judged by numbers.
In university a professor told me something. For example, today is a day in October, right? Up to this point the preceding researchers have illuminated a bright path. From here on out the road we will travel is going to be dark.
What direction should you choose to go in on a road bathed in darkness, and the professor asked me, “Shin, how are you going to decide?” Then I answered, “Umm, experience right?” and he replied, “That is the answer of someone traveling on the bright path.”
The answer is intuition.
So it comes down to human power?
Of course it’s not merely intuition. We should exhaust our search of the bright path, exhaust our inspection of human wisdom. After accumulating this (knowledge), new knowledge is created. For example, if I decided I wanted to make shoes that fly right now, my intuition tells me, “It’s not possible yet.” That is important.
Thank you for your very interesting story. I’m looking forward to the official release and future versions (of Laundroid).
Translated by Amanda Imasaka
Edited by Masaru Ikeda