October 07, 2016      

Leading Japanese manufacturers are hoping consumers will want more cute robots in their lives, even though they won’t be the mechatronic butlers of science fiction.

At Ceatec 2016, Japan’s biggest technology show, global brands such as Toyota, Sharp and Fujitsu were drawing crowds with their latest robotic platforms.

Toyota unveiled Kirobo Mini, an irresistibly cute, palm-sized droid that’s designed to be a companion for your dashboard or tabletop. It’s a scaled- and stripped-down version of Kirobo, the humanoid robot that spent 18 months aboard the International Space Station, earning a Guinness World Record as the first companion robot in space.

About 10 cm tall with over-sized, cartoonish eyes, Kirobo Mini can move its arms and head around while it talks to its owner. It’s linked to a smartphone app via Bluetooth and can process a limited set of questions via the Toyota cloud.

In a demo at Ceatec’s Makuhari Messe venue just outside Tokyo, the droid chatted playfully in Japanese, though it often misheard questions or simply hummed to itself.

“The concept is a robot that can be near you every day as a companion in your home or car,” says Toyota spokesman Shigehiko Okamura.

Kirobo Mini is set to go on sale in Japan this winter for $392. There will also be a $3 monthly fee for Toyota’s cloud service.

Toyota will start taking pre-orders later in 2016, with shipping starting in 2017.

Kirobo Mini RobotKirobo Mini

Fujitsu Robopin

At Fujitsu’s pavilion, the supercomputer maker was exhibiting a robot that looks less like a cartoon and more like an exercise in minimalistic computer graphics design.

Robopin is designed to guide people in need of directions. Although it only has six degrees of freedom of movement and a simplified face and arms, LEDs embedded in its head combined with basic gestures allow it to convey a range of emotional expressions.

Fujitsu RobopinFujitsu Robopin is “a terminal for information, just like a smartphone or tablet.”

Cloud-linked Robopins are intended to be mediators between online data, artificial intelligence and people searching for information. When it was demoed earlier this year at a Fujitsu tech showcase, Robopin gave personalized recommendations to visitors based on their pre-registered information such as their job and interests; it was able to recognize the visitors via beacon tags they wore.

“This isn’t a cute robot to spend time with at home, it’s for real work – it’s a terminal for information, just like a smartphone or tablet,” says designer Masaru Ide of Fujitsu’s Robotics Advancement Office Applied Innovation Research Center. “But it can have an air of being friendly because of its expressions and movements.”

Sharp Cocorobo

Sharp was exhibiting zebra print and other funky stick-on designs for its smartphone robot RoboHon (another cute humanoid in the vein of Kirobo) as well as a range of home appliances that can engage in limited conversation with their users. The Cocoro line includes an air conditioner, TV and oven that can respond to basic questions, as well as the Cocorobo, billed as a “singing robotic vacuum cleaner.”

Cocorobo has been around for a while and is a fairly standard floor cleaning bot, albeit with the ability to process spoken commands and purify the air. But its latest incarnation takes a definite Japanese pop culture twist – it’s been adorned with a cute, doe-eyed anime girl and equipped with Yamaha’s Vocaloid voice synthesizer, giving it the power to sing. The bot will scoot around the floor, its brushes whirling, while it happily sings saccharine Japanese electro-pop tunes.

In addition to retrieving information such as news and weather from the internet, Sharp says Cocorobo also has the ability to choose a song based on its conversation with a user, for instance an up-tempo number if it thinks its owner is feeling down. If the droid itself is “feeling” blue, it won’t sing.

“We think this robot can really cheer up a household,” a Sharp staffer said. The company has yet to decide if and when the singing robot will be released.

Other robots on display at Ceatec included an update to Omron’s table tennis-playing droid, allowing it to gauge how skillful a human opponent is and adjust its game, a humanoid robot called Caiba that can be controlled over the internet via a master-slave connection and a head-mounted display, the Laundroid laundry-folding robot, and an industrial robot arm from Denso that plays shogi, or Japanese chess.

Omron Ping Pong Robot