Softbank Corp. is entering the robotics business with its cooing, gesturing and sympathetic Pepper humanoid-on-wheels that it says is designed for companionship and can decipher human emotions.
The Japanese mobile carrier said Thursday that Pepper will go on sale in Japan in February for 198,000 yen ($1,900). Overseas sales plans are under consideration but undecided.
The machine, which has no legs, but has gently gesticulating hands appeared on a stage in a Tokyo suburb, cooing and humming. It dramatically touched hands with Softbank Chief Executive Masayoshi Son in a Genesis or "E.T." moment.
Son, who told the crowd that his longtime dream was to go into the personal robot business, said Pepper has been programmed to read the emotions of people around it by recognizing expressions and voice tones.
"Our aim is to develop affectionate robots that can make people smile," he said.
Cuddly robots are not new in Japan, a nation dominated by "kawaii," or cute culture, but no companion robot has emerged a major market success yet.
Japanese electronics and entertainment company Sony Corp. discontinued the Aibo pet-dog robot in 2006, despite any outcry from its fans. At that time, Sony had developed a child-shaped entertainment robot similar to Pepper but much smaller, capable of dances and other charming moves, which never became a commercial product.
Honda Motor Co. has developed the walking, talking Asimo robot, but that is too sophisticated and expensive for home use, and appears in Honda showrooms and gala events only. Even then, it is prone to glitches because of its complexity.
Many other Japanese companies, including Hitachi Ltd. and Toyota Motor Corp., not to mention universities and startups, have developed various robots, big and small, that entertain and serve as companions.
There is little emphasis on delivering on practical work, in contrast to industrial robots at factories and military robots for war.
But the potential is great for intelligent machines as the number of elderly requiring care is expected to soar in rapidly-aging Japan in coming years. Robotics are already used to check on the elderly and monitor their health and safety, but they might also play a role in reducing feelings of loneliness and isolation.
The 121 centimeter (48 inch) tall, 28 kilogram (62 pound) white Pepper, which has no hair but two large doll-like eyes and a flat-panel display stuck on its chest, was developed jointly with Aldebaran Robotics, which designs, produces and sells autonomous humanoid robots.
Besides featuring the latest voice recognition, Pepper is loaded with more than a dozen sensors, including two touch sensors in its hands, three touch sensors on its head, and six laser sensors and three bumper sensors in its base. (continued...)
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