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ALS patient pins hope on volunteering for 2020 Tokyo Games with help from 'avatar robot'

Hajime Takano, who has the neurodegenerative disease ALS and has applied to volunteer for the 2020 Tokyo Summer Olympics and Paralympics with the use of avatar robots, is pictured here at his home in Kawasaki, Kanagawa Prefecture, on March 13, 2019. (Mainichi/ Miaki Tsuburaya)

KAWASAKI -- Some people with serious physical disabilities are aspiring to volunteer in the upcoming 2020 Tokyo Summer Olympics and Paralympics with the help of "avatar robots."

"I want to show to the world Japan's innovativeness, which allows even those with serious disabilities to participate in society," said 54-year-old Hajime Takano, a resident of the Kanagawa Prefecture city of Kawasaki, south of Tokyo. He hopes to become a volunteer in the service sector, such as directing visitors to their destinations.

In 2013, Takano first developed symptoms of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), which causes atrophy of nerve cells all over the body. Within several years, his arms and hands stopped moving, and he became unable to speak. Fear and negative thoughts crowded his mind, as he wondered how much longer he had to live. But as he learned more and more about his illness and came across technology that allowed him to communicate with others, he came to have a more positive outlook.

Takano came across the "avatar robot" OriHime in summer 2015. Operating OriHime entailed using eye movements to input commands, and Takano was able to make the robot carry out various movements, including nodding and waving its hand.

OriHime is an "avatar" robot equipped with a camera, microphone and speaker that communicates to others on behalf of the user. (Photo courtesy of Ory Laboratory Co.)

"When movements accompany words, the quality of communication changes," Takano said. "It delights me." He participated in reunions and tennis trips with his friends using OriHime, savoring the joy of sharing experiences with others.

Then, he learned that volunteers were being sought for the 2020 Tokyo Games. "It's a once in a lifetime chance for the games to take place in my own country," he thought. He couldn't contain his excitement and applied to become a city volunteer for the games. He gained confidence after helping at an avatar robot cafe that opened for a limited time from November to December last year, taking orders and serving drinks to customers using OriHime.

At the Tokyo Games, Takano is wondering if he can take on the role of something like a "concierge," advising visitors who come with questions about where to go and how to get there. "It would be nice if they could open an avatar robot cafe at sports venues," he said, his vision expanding. As for operating these avatar robots, Takano asks for understanding that communication takes some extra time because one's thoughts are being converted into movements and sounds through a computer, and also that one to three helpers would be needed per volunteer with a disability using an avatar robot.

Takano added that there's no meaning if others merely think, "Isn't that amazing?" or "Aren't they doing so well?" when coming in contact with people with disabilities. His hope, he said, is "to inspire people with serious disabilities to participate more in society, and people without disabilities to allow the seriously disabled to do so."

A Tokyo Metropolitan Government official told the Mainichi Shimbun, "We would like to consider a wide range of volunteer activities so that many people with disabilities can participate." According to the metro government, of the 36,649 people who have applied to become city volunteers, 140 have declared that they require extra consideration or support due to such circumstances as mental and physical disabilities.

Volunteers will be decided next March onward following screening interviews and training sessions.

(Japanese original by Miaki Tsuburaya, Sports News Department)

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