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Photos by James Walker

James Walker heads to a new robot shop in Akihabara.

Tokyo has always had the lion's share of the world's technophiles, but the robot revolution over the last two years has lured even newbie consumers to the tech market. Enter RobokonMagazineKan (3-2-13 Soto-Kanda, Chiyoda-ku). Tucked away on the side streets of the ever-growing Electric City, this specialty shop with an unwieldy name is a robot fanatic's candyland.

Opened in August of this year, RobokonMagazineKan is part of the huge Tsukumo chain, which has almost a dozen outlets in Akihabara alone. Here, robot fans can find a wide range of products that fall into two categories: entertainment robots and contest robots. The entertainment section in the front of the shop is home to some familiar mechanical faces such as the robotic dog Poo-Chi, the immensely irritating robotic parrot Songbird and the Aquaroid automated jellyfish. Unfortunately, you won't find Aibo or Aibo 2 here because Sony is still conducting sales through the Internet only, but you can get a copy of the bilingual member's magazine Aibo World to leaf through.

You will find, however, the newest kids on the robot block - the engagingly cute Ku-Ku, Mu-Mu and Sa-Sa from Takara Co., Japan's third-largest toy maker, which all have slightly different features. Sa-Sa has a soft, rounded shape and carries a built-in alarm clock with a variety of voices to shout you out of bed. The similarly shaped Ku-Ku has an infrared sensor that, once activated, will automatically welcome you home if you place it in your genkan. Mu-Mu resembles an old-fashioned, chunky mobile phone and contains a vibrating grip that will give you a massage while it talks to you.

"I must stress that in the entertainment section, these are more toys than actual robots," says sales promotion manager Yamato Goto. "NEC are working on a machine that functions as a butler, but we're a long way away from artificial intelligence."

One step up from the "toys" are the build-it-yourself kits also in the entertainment section. Popular with hobbyists from junior high school age upwards, the kits range from JY2000 to JY5000. The most popular is the "Robot Arm" kit, which you can teach to pick up and hold delicate and awkward objects. The kits come in a wide range of forms and functions - another is the "Soccer Robot," which plays like a little cowcatcher on four wheels.

The perpetual problem is, sadly, the lack of English-language guides available. Some of the robots on sale are easy to use without written instructions, but the only kit that has a bilingual manual is the imported "Mindstorms" from Lego.

At the back of the store is the "Contest Robot" section - home of the hardcore. Here, the kits are of fiendish complexity, and the prices range from JY20,000 to JY79,000. The robots assembled here are for serious hobbyists or engineering grad students, many of whom take part in the national contests for robot-makers: the "Robolympics," which is sponsored and televised by NHK, and the Robot Sumo Contest, which is held every Autumn in the Sumo sanctuary itself, the Ryogoku.

The best-selling item to date from the store has been a combination of fun and complexity - Bandai's WonderBorg. It's cute (if you like metal things that crawl around), affordable, easy to program, but is also at the leading edge of the technology that is teaching machines to think.

"It's the closest thing you can get to artificial intelligence," says Goto, "that you can hold in the palm of your hand."

For more information, call the store at 03-3251-0987.


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