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Japanese telco SoftBank Mobile and robotics company Aldebaran Robotics have announced Pepper, ‘a personal robot that can read emotions’.

The companies say that Pepper will be available in February 2015. They claim the 1.2 metre tall humanoid device is a world first in its ability to read emotions, interact with its surroundings, and build a kind of collective intelligence from cloud based AI (artificial intelligence).

It is remarkably inexpensive, at ¥190,000 (a little over $2000), though software and add-ons that make it fully functional will almost certainly add significantly to this price. Prototypes are on display in SoftBank’s retail stores in Omotesando and Ginza in Tokyo, with more coming to other SoftBank stores around Japan.

This is a serious announcement – SoftBank is one of Japan’s largest companies, and its CEO and founder Masayoshi Son is a high profile entrepreneur who has often been referred to as ‘Japan’s Bill Gates’. He is serious about the new robot.

“Pepper is a humanoid robot that takes his surroundings into consideration to react pro-actively using proprietary algorithms,” he says. “Since foundation, we have followed our corporate philosophy of ‘Information Revolution – Happiness for everyone’.

“To realise our vision, we have made a new entry into the robot business with the aim of developing affectionate robots that make people smile. Using emotion engines and cloud AI, which evolves with collective wisdom, we're making this happen.”

The company’s announcement says “Pepper comes equipped with capabilities and an interface that enables communication with people, including the latest voice recognition technology, superior joint technology to realise graceful gestures, and emotion recognition that analyses expressions and voice tones.

“With these technologies, people can enjoy communicating with Pepper in a natural way, just like they would with friends and family. In addition, Pepper can make jokes, dance and amuse people, thanks to a wide variety of entertainment capabilities.”

SoftBank says many of these features were developed in cooperation with Japanese company Yoshimoto Robotics Laboratory. Further capabilities that help Pepper evolve by learning through daily interactions with people are also being planned for the commercial launch timing.

SoftBank says a software development kit (SDK) will be provided for creating robot apps, and in September 2014 a Pepper ‘tech festival’ well be held in Tokyo will provide technical specifications and development methods. The SDK will allow third parties developers to create apps for Pepper, using its motion, conversation and sensor capabilities.

Masayoshi Son says the announcement of Pepper is a tangible result of the company’s ‘Next-30 Year Vision’ announced in 2010, in which the SoftBank Group expressed its interest in robot technology as a means to enhance quality of life.

Softbank made an equity investment in French robotics company Aldebaran in 2012, and now owns 78.5% of the company. Aldebaran was founded by Bruno Maisonnier in 2005, and now employs 500 people.

The company has won a number of awards for its robotics work, with Maisonnier, recently receiving the IEEE Innovation and Entrepreneurship Award 2011 from the International Federation of Robotics.

“For the past nine years, I've believed that the most important role of robots will be as kind and emotional companions to enhance our daily lives, to bring happiness, constantly surprise us, and make people grow,” said Maisonnier.

“The emotional robot will create a new dimension in our lives and new ways of interacting with technology. It's just the beginning, but already a promising reality. Thanks to Pepper, the future begins today and we want all of you to be a part of it.”

Features planned for Pepper include:

  • Judges situations with an array of sensors, incorporates proprietary algorithms to control applications autonomously.
  • Estimates emotions based on expressions and voice tones using emotion recognition functions
  • Over 12 hours battery life
  • Articulates gracefully with a high degree of freedom thanks to proprietarily developed joints
  • Can acquire various types of information and synchronise with cloud-based databases through an Internet connection
  • Uses sensors to avoid collisions and has autobalance to prevent falls, among other various safety features.
  • Capabilities are expandable by installing various new types of robot apps.
  • Aldebaran's software development kit (SDK) will be provided for a wide range of applications, from simple movements to advanced customisation using widely available programming languages.

Specifications

Dimensions              1,210mm (height) × 425mm (depth) × 485mm (width)

Weight                      28 kg

Battery                      Lithium-ion battery, Capacity: 30.0Ah/795Wh. Life: approx. 12hrs

Sensors         :          Head  Mic × 4, RGB camera × 2, 3D sensor × 1, Touch sensor × 3

                                  Chest Gyro × 1

                                  Hands Touch × 2

                      Legs Sonar × 2, Laser × 6, Bumper × 3, Gyro × 1

Moving parts           20 motors. Degrees of motion:

Head (2°)

Shoulder (2°) (L&R)

Elbow (2 rotations) (L&R),

Wrist (1°) (L&R)

Hand and five fingers (1°) (L&R)

Hip (2°)

Knee (1°)

Base (3°).

Display                      10.1-inch touch display

Platform                   NAOqi OS

Networking              Wi-Fi: IEEE 802.11 a/b/g/n (2.4GHz/5GHz) Ethernet × 1 (10/100/1000 base T)

Speed                       Up to 3km/h

Climbing                   Up to 1.5cm

There is extensive material, including a video, at Aldebaran’s website: www.aldebaran.com

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Graeme Philipson

Graeme Philipson is senior associate editor at iTWire and editor of sister publication CommsWire. He is also founder and Research Director of Connection Research, a market research and analysis firm specialising in the convergence of sustainable, digital and environmental technologies. He has been in the high tech industry for more than 30 years, most of that time as a market researcher, analyst and journalist. He was founding editor of MIS magazine, and is a former editor of Computerworld Australia. He was a research director for Gartner Asia Pacific and research manager for the Yankee Group Australia. He was a long time IT columnist in The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald, and is a recipient of the Kester Award for lifetime achievement in IT journalism.

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