November 03, 2015      

The Pepper robot from SoftBank Group Corp. and Aldebaran Robotics SAS is available for enterprise orders in Japan.

The “emotional” Pepper is designed to recognize facial expressions and respond conversationally. The multilingual humanoid robot is already in use at stores and hotels in Japan. Pepper can read and react to emotions, but it doesn’t experience emotions itself.

Pepper’s hardware, with its large eyes, short stature, and rounded body, is meant to be non-threatening, said Alia Pyros, international communications manager at Paris-based Aldebaran.

Pepper for Biz is similar to the consumer model being marketed as a companion for families and those living alone in Japan. “From the hardware point of view, Pepper is the same,” said Magali Cubier, global marketing and communication director at Aldebaran.

However, Pepper for Biz comes with customer-service software.

“What makes Pepper adaptable to different contexts, such as from business to consumer use, is the content and software functions,” Cubier told Robotics Business Review. “While business offers are loaded with software targeted at being welcoming, assistive aids in stores, the consumer version is targeted for daily life assistance and entertainment. For example, on the consumer version of Pepper, you can find applications like recipe finders, storytellers and much more.”

The preinstalled enterprise applications enable Pepper to greet customers, make video product presentations, and propose offerings or take questionnaires. Pepper for Biz can also notify employees when a visitor arrives for an appointment and play games with customers.

Custom software

In addition, the standard software lets enterprise users customize business applications, and administrators can manage multiple robots at once. Admins can also set up groups by name or location and deliver apps to different groups.

There are about 200 applications so far, and Aldebaran is hoping that developers such as GeckoSystems Corp., which is researching assistive apps for nursing care, will make more.

“Today, Aldebaran, SoftBank, and partner companies around the world are constantly working to create more content for Pepper,” said Cubier. “In addition, the developer community counts around 5,000 members. This global group will work on designing a variety of applications for Pepper to fit a number of different wants and needs.”

In addition, the Pepper for Biz Platform provides “interaction analysis” by storing sensor data about passers-by and information about who access which applications. It records customer facial expressions and other data that can be used for marketing.

Cost and sales

Pepper for Biz costs 55,000 yen (about $450) per month for a three-year contract, for a total of 1,980,000 yen ($16,350), not including taxes.

For an additional 9,800 yen ($81), Pepper customers can get dedicated online and phone support, as well as replacements or exchanges in case of malfunction.

Since June, Tokyo-based SoftBank Group has made 1,000 Pepper units available per month in Japan, and each month, they have sold out in one minute.

Pepper and Watson

At RoboBusiness 2015 in San Jose, Calif., Rob High, chief technology officer of IBM’s Watson group, ran an “embodied cognitive computing” demonstration on an Aldebaran Nao during his keynote.

Massachusetts has offered IBM Watson $2.5 million in tax breaks, and the group is offering cloud computing services to healthcare providers, among other industries.

“Like a number of other partners Aldebaran works with, IBM is using Aldebaran robots as a platform to create and run their applications on,” said Cubier. “Today, the Watson software is still in its early development stages but is constantly undergoing testing and advancement. As Rob High mentioned in his presentation, the behaviors shown are real applications that, under the right circumstances, can be done autonomously by the robot.”

Pepper in Paris

As part of the launch of the “Franco-Japanese Year of Innovation,” Aldebaran opened its first “Atelier,” or workshop space, near Paris. The Atelier is intended for both developers and the general public. The company also plans to open two in Japan.

“Currently, our robots are exclusively found on the professional market,” previously said Bruno Maisonnier, Aldebaran’s founder. “Our objective is for them to become accessible to the general public, and our intention is to create a place where humans and robots can meet. The Atelier, with its developers’ space, is also about generating new application-development ideas for our robots as well as paving the way to new business models.”

Seven Pepper units are also in use around a Carrefour retail store, where they can recommend wine selections and monitor customer satisfaction.

The U.S. version of Pepper, which will be available next year, will have a different, snarkier personality than its Japanese sibling, with interface programming based on local cultural attitudes.

Robots reach around the world

Aldebaran is expanding from about 450 employees worldwide, with offices in Boston, Paris, Shanghai, and Tokyo.

“Around 400 of these employees are based in our headquarters in Paris,” Cubier said. “We anticipate continuing to grow in the future in order to support our products, customers, and partners worldwide.”

Aldebaran is testing its Nao for helping children with autism in Haverhill, Mass., and its Romeo model is intended to aid senior citizens.

Beyond Japan, France, and the U.S., SoftBank could sell Pepper in Australia and China. “Our goal is to make Pepper available throughout the world,” Cubier said.

“Today, we do not have a finalized timeline as to when Pepper will be available to businesses in the U.S. or Europe,” she added. “We have a number of innovative companies from various sectors of business — transportation, tourism, retail, etc. — exploring the opportunity of working with Pepper, and we are excited to connect with anyone interested in starting the conversation around what Pepper can do for their specific business strategy.”