Do American drivers know the extent to which they're being deprived, signage-wise? When motorists enter a construction zone in this country, they'll likely to run into a bunch of orange signs or, at the flashiest, a glowing arrow like this one:
It's fine enough if the goal is to simply get people to move their vehicles safely through the zone. But if construction engineers wanted to add a sense of wonder and fun to the experience – or flesh-tingling creepiness, depending on your viewpoint – what else could they add?
Japan has the answer and, as is often the case, it is: robots. When the country's road crews want to mark out a repair zone, they head to central storage and pull out a variety of anthropomorphic signals with arms that wave drivers into the correct lane. These dead-eyed entities range in sophistication from electronic cartoons to crude scarecrows to quite realistic, but disembodied torsos escaped from the Uncanny Valley to infest our nightmares.
The Japanese call them Anzen Taro, which roughly translates to "Joe Safety," according to traffic-robot fan Patrick Benny. "There are many types around, and complexity goes from a simple-looking metal plate to sophisticated clothed mannequins, but all of them have a robotic arm," says Benny at his Flickr group, "Robots for Safety." Sometimes they even "come in the form of a large LED screen showing a construction worker waving a flag."
I was ambushed by one of these mechanized guys during a recent trip to Tokyo (it was this dude, gesticulating with a light saber). But browsing through Benny's collection, I was amazed at the eclectic variety of arm-churning 'bots earning overtime to make Japan's roads secure for travel. I'm still scratching my head at why Japan uses these things – perhaps a dumb question for a nation whose capital has a giant robot-infested nightclub. But one Flickr user touches on something feasible sounding when he says, "I think people are more responsive to the human form, and so are more apt to pay attention to a robot or mannequin than a sign perhaps."