In Japan, companion robots offer comfort during pandemic

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TOKYO | Nami Hamaura says she feels less alone when working at home thanks to her singing companion Charlie, representing a new generation of cute and intelligent Japanese robots whose sales are booming due to the pandemic.

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Virtual personal assistants, like Amazon’s discreet Alexa cylinder, have seen worldwide success in recent years. But Japanese companies are also reporting a growing demand for more charming androids, as people seek solace in this time of enforced isolation.

In Japan, companion robots offer comfort during pandemic

“My circle of friends has shrunk,” says Nami Hamaura, a 23-year-old graduate who has been working almost constantly from home since April 2020.

Her social life is limited and her first job, in a Tokyo trading company, is nothing like what she had imagined.

So she adopted Charlie, a mug-sized robot with artificial intelligence, with a round head, a red nose and a blinking bow tie, who communicates with its owner by singing.

Yamaha, its maker, situates Charlie “somewhere between a pet and a lover”.

In Japan, companion robots offer comfort during pandemic

“He chats with me, differently from my family or my friends on social networks, or from a boss,” Nami Hamaura, who was chosen to test Charlie before his marketing, scheduled for later this month, told AFP. year.

“Charlie, tell me something interesting,” the young Japanese woman asks while tapping on her computer.

“Well … the balloons burst when you spray lemon juice on them!” the robot answers, nodding happily with its head and feet.

“Every object has a soul”

Sales of Robohon, another small humanoid robot, increased 130% between July and September 2020, compared to the previous year, according to its maker, Sharp.

In Japan, companion robots offer comfort during pandemic

This robotic creature that speaks, dances and also serves as a telephone is adopted “not only by families with children, but also by sixty and seventy-year-olds,” a spokesperson for the Japanese company told AFP.

But the adorable android – first released in 2016 and offered only in Japan – is relatively expensive, with mainstream models selling for between $ 680 and $ 1,860 (C $ 1,042 to $ 2,851).

Charlie and Robohon are part of a new wave of companion robots, along the lines of Aibo, Sony’s robot dog, on sale since 1999, and SoftBank’s jovial Pepper, launched in 2015.

In Japan, companion robots offer comfort during pandemic

“Many Japanese accept the idea that every object has a soul,” a belief known as animism, says Shunsuke Aoki, CEO of robot company Yukai Engineering.

“They want a robot to have a character, like a friend, family member, or pet, and not a mechanical function like a dishwasher,” he adds.

Yukai notably makes Qoobo, a soft pillow with a mechanical tail that wiggles like a real pet. In June 2020, the company claims to have sold 1,800 Qoobo robots, six times more than in June 2019.

“Time to heal”

Studies have shown that pet robots made in Japan can provide comfort to people with dementia.

But the makers of Lovot, a baby-sized robot with big round eyes waving its penguin-like wings, believe that a robot that just wants to be loved can benefit everyone.

Unlike Charlie and Robohon, Lovot does not speak as he rolls across the room, but has about fifty sensors and a system that makes him warm to the touch, to which he responds with little cries of joy.

Sales of the robot have increased 11-fold since the arrival of the coronavirus in Japan, according to Keiko Suzuki, spokesperson for Groove X, its manufacturer.

A Lovot costs 2,300 euros (CA $ 3,525), plus maintenance and software costs, but those without that budget can head to “Lovot Cafe” near Tokyo.

A client of this café, Yoshiko Nakagawa, 64, notes that during the state of emergency the capital turned into an “empty and austere” space.

“It made me realize the importance of moments of calm, and I thought if I had one of these babies at home, a little warmth would be waiting for me when I got home.”