Pepper made news several years ago when it was announced it was the first humanoid robot that could recognize emotions and remember faces. Now, SoftBank has announced that it will be producing 1,000 of these robots for sale to the public in Japan. There is no word yet about when Pepper will be available outside of its country of origin, but buyers are already joining a waiting list. While Pepper is greatly anticipated on the consumer robotics market, there are some questions about whether it will live up to its hype.
What can Pepper really do?
This is the real question for buyers. That is can recognize faces is proven, but the emotional recognition isn’t deemed to be as well developed and accurate as SoftBank likes to promote. While it has fully articulated arms capable of complex motions, the mechanics of the arms are so delicate it cannot perform tasks that involve any weight. This limits its use in the role of an assistant to the elderly and disabled, which is one of the major uses it is being advertised for. With its limitations however, it may be opening up a new market for consumer robotics – that of the companion robot.
Why a robot companion may be a viable product
The idea of spending several thousand dollars on the initial purchase, and several hundred a year for maintenance and updates for a limited capacity robot seems like it would have limited appeal. With even minimal emotional recognition Pepper moves robots from being tools of function into tools of companionship. The robot may not have to be able to do anything beyond ask why the user is feeling sad to earn its place on the market. With Japan facing a steeply rising elderly population that doesn’t have the support of the traditional family for care, more of the elderly are living in isolation. While expensive, the price of Pepper isn’t out of reach. If one begins to cast it as a companion, then one can see how it could be a more successful choice for the elderly than a cat or dog.
SoftBank’s projected production rates are telling
With the announcement that they would be producing 1,000 of these companion robots a month SoftBank is tipping their hand to knowing something about the market that critics may not recognize. In their pricing plan they also have rental programs for corporations. There is much talk about replacing kiosks in transportation hubs with Pepper, as well as using Pepper in healthcare settings. All in all, the success of Pepper is going to depend on how well the first adopters find having the robot is in real life. The real verdict won’t be in until much later in 2016.