5 Visions of the Future We Saw at Panasonic's 100th Birthday Expo

By Holly Brockwell on at

Japanese tech corp Panasonic is 100 years old this year, and they're having a big old celebration in Tokyo in the form of an exhibition. As you might expect, said exhibition includes plenty of Panasonic's past, with some glorious ancient tech on display from back when the company was called National:

The company's first TV, the monochrome 17-K531 from 1952 

The particularly gorgeous R-31 3-tube radio from 1931

A computer from 1981 that mysteriously has a 'Poke' key (on the H). If you know what it's for, tell us in the comments!

As you'd expect, the show also includes a fair whack of exciting new stuff Panasonic is working on, and since we've gone all the way to Japan to see it, we figured we'd share it with you. Here are 5 of our favourites.

1. The 'Personal Porter Robot' that follows you around like a puppy

Somewhere between a dog and a shopping trolley, this adorable piece of tech is a little robot that learns who to follow by facial recognition, then trundles along after that person's shoes until they bend down and tell it to open. At which point it gladly springs its lid (but only for the right face, of course) and displays all the stuff you bought at the shops.

It's designed as a mobility solution: Panasonic says "this personal porter for people who have difficulty going out will carry their bags and follow them like a pet."

We are fully aware that this would be 90% less exciting without the kawaii rounded corners, big blinking eyes and general appearance of Baymax's baby, but cute design is a tried-and-tested path to mainstream adoption, and we're OK with that.

2. The AR climbing wall that makes exercise feel like a videogame

Some of the innovations we've seen at tech shows have led us to believe that far from the weedy stereotype we have now, the gamers of the future will be the fittest of us all. This prototype from Panasonic is very much in that vein: it's a standard climbing wall upgraded with projection mapping and biometric tech to react as you climb.

Not only can it encourage you, show you paths and keep your score, it can also display an accurate heartbeat without you wearing any kind of tracker. This works by recording the amount of green light that bounces back from your skin, which fluctuates according to your heart rate. Or something. We were busy trying to beat the machine: it's really, really fun. Also knackering.

3. The AI walking frame that keeps Grandad on his feet

A bit more worthy, this one. The 'Walking Training Robot' is pretty much a standard walking frame with a touchscreen and some smarts built in. The idea is "to support the desire to continue walking on with one's own legs as long as possible," which is a wordy way of saying it helps keep not-so-mobile folks out of wheelchairs a little longer.

The built-in AI isn't just a buzzword: it learns how the person using it walks, what their difficulties and strengths are, and gradually trains them day-by-day to be stronger and more able.

We witnessed Gerald from TechRadar giving it a go, and he looked almost sprightly by the end. Not bad for someone in his thirties.

4. The screen that makes translations transparent

This one's potentially going to be used for the 2020 Olympics, which are being held in Tokyo.

It's a transparent screen with a microphone on either side. You hold down the button and speak into the microphone, and it translates what you said into text in the other person's language on the transparent screen in between you.

We had a good go on this and even in the very loud conference hall, it mostly picked up exactly what we were saying, and we had a deeply polite conversation with the Japanese-speaking reps about what a wonderful time we were having at the show (not a lie, but also not our best conversational effort).

It does have a touch of the Starbucks about it when it comes to names, though: "My name is Holly" came out as "my name is calling."

5. The world's most relaxing car

If this doesn't sell you on autonomous vehicles, nothing will. The confusingly-named SPACe_L is an autonomous car designed for the year 2030 or so (sob) when we'll be able to just chill in our vehicles while they drive us wherever we're going.

It's supposed to feel like a luxurious living room, and my god, it does. We did not want to leave. The leather seats are supremely comfy, tiltable, and have speakers built into the headrests, there's a little rug on the upholstered floor (aww), oh, and three whopping great screens to keep you entertained.

There are two 4K 55-inchers on the left of you, joined together to make one behemoth, and a 77-inch 4K OLED panel on the ceiling too. The two screens work together to show immersive content to distract you from the humdrum reality of commuting: we watched a concert by the Berlin Philharmonic while angelic violins thrummed in our ears, then watched massive sea creatures swim over and above us as if we were in an aquarium, and finally drew silly nonsense on the screens with our fingers, which lit up and grew fireworks. That's one way to make your brother's obscene drawings more palatable, we guess!

The whole thing is crazy comfortable and loaded with tech: at one point we looked at heat maps of our own bodies on the ceiling panel, after which the car automatically adjusted the air environment to each of us individually. There's a touch volume panel built into the arm, and apparently all the driving stuff is in there somewhere if you need to take over.

The car can even output smells, dousing us in a bouquet of roses as we enjoyed our highfalutin orchestral serenade. This, quite frankly, is the future we signed up for.