Pepper robot goes on sale as SoftBank announces $589M joint venture with Alibaba, Foxconn
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Photo Credit: Aldebaran

Now that the emotional robot has entered the market, Softbank wants Pepper to be the first household humanoid robot in the world

Tech in Asia

SoftBank CEO Masayoshi Son announced recently that its Pepper robot would go on sale in Japan. This occurred on Saturday, June 20. Pepper, a humanoid robot developed by SoftBank Group subsidiary Aldebaran Robotics, has already been greeting the Japanese telco giant’s customers in select retail stores since its debut a year ago.

In addition, Son announced the joint venture SoftBank Robotics Holdings with Foxconn CEO Terry Guo and Alibaba Group chairman Jack Ma. SoftBank Corp will retain a 60% share, with Foxconn and Alibaba each holding 20% of the $589 million venture that is expected to produce thousands of humanoid robots per year. Many of the Pepper units that have been made over the past year were produced by Foxconn.

Japan is no stranger to advanced humanoid robots. Honda’s ASIMO has played soccer with Barack Obama and HRP-4C, commonly known as Miim, can even cosplay and sing karaoke. Pepper is not an athlete or a musician, but when it goes on sale later this week, its mass-market availability and interaction with human emotions may make it a superstar.

A household companion

Photo Credit: Tech in Asia

Photo Credit: Aldebaran

SoftBank wants Pepper to be the first household humanoid robot in the world. Pepper retails for JPY 198,000 (about $1,600), though its three-year support plan and warranty commitment raise that figure to JPY 1,093,400 (approximately $9,040). One thousand units are for sale in the initial run for consumers.

Like its Aldebaran predecessor NAO, Pepper is designed to respond to the human emotions of joy, surprise, anger, doubt, and sadness. However, Pepper uses IBM’s Watson to run an internal emotion engine that governs the robot’s feelings independently of human interaction.

Darkness, a rainy day, or bad news drawn from the web elicit melancholy from Pepper, but some sun, a compliment, or a win for the SoftBank Hawks baseball team will bring “his” mood back up.

One of Pepper’s new features is the kokorogumi, a unit of happiness represented by hearts on its screen that accrue with acts of kindness. Pepper’s gamification offers unlockables with every 100 kokorogumi, like new dances and English lessons for children.

With help from independent developers, who were able to place orders on Feb. 27, SoftBank hopes to discover new ways in which Pepper can create bonds with household customers. Already, Pepper can read your body language, facial features, and language to determine your mood, and might try to cheer you up by playing a favorite song.

Getting to work

Photo Credit: Tech in Asia

Photo Credit: Aldebaran

Although Pepper has yet to reach Japanese homes, it has already begun engaging with consumers. Starting in June 2014, SoftBank’s robot has been put to work at the telco’s retail locations around Japan, enchanting customers with its quirky self-introduction and dancing to “Let It Go” from Disney’s Frozen.

SoftBank envisions Pepper as a product for Japan’s growing elderly population. As caregivers are stretched thin at the country’s assisted living and rehabilitation facilities, the idea goes, Pepper could address the concerns of providing Japan’s senior citizens with simple assistance and companionship.

The little, white robot has instead caught on as a customer service representative. Pepper’s first high-profile job outside its parent company was at Nestle. The Swiss food and beverage company commissioned 20 units to sell coffee machines in Japan, sub-brand Nescafe’s largest market. The company expects to deploy the robots to over 1,000 stores by the end of 2015, providing some much-needed publicity for SoftBank’s new robotic face.

“We hope this new type of made-in-Japan customer service will take off around the world,” said Nestle Japan chief executive Kozo Takaoka.

An uncertain future

Photo Credit: Tech in Asia

Photo Credit: Aldebaran

Pepper’s success is far from assured. Reports of cultural tensions between parent company SoftBank and its subsidiary Aldebaran suggest that collaborations on Pepper are breaking down. And now that SoftBank has announced its joint venture with Alibaba and Foxconn, Pepper’s masterminds at Aldebaran may find themselves locked out.

With an initial sales run of 1,000 units and a hefty price tag, Pepper will only be available to a precious, affluent few – for now. Son says that this fall will bring news on “Pepper for Biz,” which will expand Pepper’s applications into new sectors.

Despite having received thousands of inquiries about Pepper from eager companies, Son has asked for their patience and offered assurances that the best is yet to come. “Pepper-kun has only just turned one year old, after all,” he said.

This post was originally published on Tech in Asia.

Editing by J.T. Quigley.

Featured Image Credit: Aldebaran.

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Colin Moreshead

About Colin Moreshead


Colin Moreshead is a writer for Tech in Asia who is living and working in Tokyo. He studied at Wesleyan and Waseda Universities, where his research focused primarily on Japanese economic institutions and exchange rate policy.

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