Personal Digital Robot

Sharp’s New Walking, Talking Smart Device

RoboHon_lHere’s a good kind of robocall.

We’ve seen the growing trend of smart assistants for the home. Jibo, for example, is an intelligent and endearing social appliance that listens, learns and provides some camaraderie. Amazon’s Echo is a new type of home computer: a hub embedded into family lifestyles and their shopping habits. These gadgets might someday become a living-room norm as capabilities increase and prices come down.

A few years ago, CCS Insight saw an early prototype of a Japanese pocketable robot-like device called Robohon. It walked, it talked, and impressed us a great deal. It looked like a toy, but its potential was very real. The device began as a university research project but has since received backing from Sharp, and we’re happy to see that Robohon is being produced as a new type of smart device that breaks the mould. In the current sea of sameness, this isn’t your ordinary Android device.

Robohon is part smartphone, part digital assistant and part artificial friend. It’s an interesting crossbreed between products classes, though is unlikely to appeal to the masses. However, it could find a role as a technology companion to elderly consumers (particularly as Japan has the oldest population in the world), or anyone looking for a more natural user interface to stay connected to family and friends.

Robohon has a modest two-inch touch screen that counters the trend of expanding displays, but this is a clear indication that the device is voice-operated. It has 3G and 4G connectivity, and a camera and projector built into its mechanical head. Sharp’s emotional video of the product shows Robohon touching users’ hearts by connecting family members to each other and to memories. It wakes, it reminds, it dictates, it dances and it even hails a taxi when needed.

More than 15 years ago, Sony introduced its AIBO dog as an “entertainment” robot — an early version of a robot filled with sensors, gears and a synthetic personality. AIBO was discontinued — and introduced to digital doggy heaven — a long time ago, but it’s nice to see the concept is still alive and going mobile. A device like Robohon has the potential to become a hub for the home, and shows the potential of what more can be done with the current tools of the trade. Sharp will begin shipping Robohon in 2016 in Japan and, depending how it’s priced, it could find a niche.

The Robohon launch story reminds us that there’s more where this came from. Toy company Mattel, for example, has developed a Wi-Fi Barbie with Siri-like powers, and Google has patented emotional stuffed animals. Android will be crammed into more things over the coming years. Everything can be a ‘droid.

For more information, please click here to see CCS Insight’s Ben Wood interviewed by the BBC News about Robohon.

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