Kobashi's decision to 'use whatever existing technologies they could' was based on his knowledge of ASIMO, Walking Assist, and other Honda robotics technologies, along with a wealth of other unique mobility research from the past.
It was over 20 years ago at the Idea Contest1 that a vehicle designed to move as if its rider was balancing on a ball was demonstrated, creating quite a stir. Two members of the team that presented this vehicle, dubbed the moving Uni-ball, which won both the Golden Idea Contest Award and the mechanical prize at the 1989 competition, were none other than Hiroshi Gomi (Fundamental Technology Research Center) and Toru Takenaka (previously mentioned), who have watched over and supported the U3-X project.
"Takenaka was in charge of controls and I was in charge of mechanical design," remembers Gomi. "In addition to the Uni-ball, at the same time we also experimented with the 'Aqua Horse', which used foot fins to allow a person to run on water, and the 'Fantasy Bike', which had two coaxially mounted wheels, one on each side. Their common characteristic was that they were each entirely different from any vehicle that had come before, offering a freedom of mobility unobtainable anywhere else."
"It's easy to imagine how the Uni-ball moves if you think of the ball hidden beneath a computer mouse. But we just couldn't get it to move nimbly, and we really struggled to get it ready for the Idea Contest," recalls Takenaka with a smile. "Compared to the Uni-ball, the U3-X moves much more smoothly."
The reason Takenaka and Gomi are in a position to discuss the entire development process from the Uni-ball to the U3-X is because they are both involved in ASIMO research and development and Honda robotics development. They have both spent long years in research, with Takenaka working principally on ASIMO walking control mechanisms and Gomi supervising mechanical design.
"The primary factor in our ability to develop the U3-X in such a short time was the balance control and electrical component technologies developed for ASIMO," says Kobashi. "It's precisely because we had this accumulated technology base to work with that we were able to quickly pinpoint our objectives and get to work on the U3-X challenge right away."
But just what was the 'U3-X challenge' of which Kobashi spoke?
1 Idea Contest: Held from 1970 to 1993, the event was a 'sports day of the mind' for Honda associates.
The Uni-ball (right) and Fantasy Bike (left), presented at the Idea Contest in 1989. Riders are Takenaka and Gomi, respectively. The freedom of motion amazed onlookers at the time.