TOKYO -- Imagine a bicycle seat connected by mechanical frames to a pair of shoes for an idea of how the new wearable assisted-walking gadget from Honda works.
The experimental device, unveiled Friday, is designed to support bodyweight, reduce stress on the knees and help people get up steps and stay in crouching positions.
Honda envisions the device being used by workers at auto or other factories. It showed a video of Honda employees wearing the device and bending to peer underneath vehicles on an assembly line.
Engineer Jun Ashihara also said the machine is useful for people standing in long lines and for people who run around to make deliveries.
"This should be as easy to use as a bicycle," Ashihara said at Honda's Tokyo headquarters. "It reduces stress, and you should feel less tired."
To wear it, you put the seat between your legs, put on the shoes and push the on button. Then just start walking around.
In a test-run for media, this reporter found it does take some getting used to. But I could sense how it supported my moves, pushing up on my bottom when I squatted and pushing at my soles to help lift my legs when I walked.
The system has a computer, motor, gears, battery and sensors embedded in it so it responds to a person's movements, according to Honda Motor Co.
Pricing and commercial product plans are still undecided. Japan's No. 2 automaker will begin testing a prototype with its assembly line workers later this month for feedback.
The need for such mechanical help is expected to grow in Japan, which has one of the most rapidly aging societies in the world.
Other companies are also eyeing the potentially lucrative market of helping the weak and old get around. Japan is among the world's leading nations in robotics technology, not only for industrial use but also for entertainment and companionship.
Earlier this year, Japanese rival Toyota Motor Corp. showed a Segway-like ride it said was meant for old people.
Japanese robot company Cyberdyne has begun renting out in Japan a belted device called HAL, for "hybrid assistive limb," that reads brain signals to help people move about with mechanical leg braces that strap to the legs.
Honda has shown a similar but simpler belted device. It has motors on the left and right, which hook up to frames that strap at the thighs, helping the walker maintain a proper stride.
That device, being tested at one Japanese facility, helps rehabilitation programs for the disabled, encouraging them to take steps, said Honda official Kiyoshi Aikawa.
Honda has been carrying out research into mobility for more than a decade, introducing the Asimo humanoid in 2000.