Perfect for long and lonely drives, Toyota Motor Corp has announced it will soon be selling a companion robot called Kirobo Mini that's small enough to sit in the cupholder of a car.
The robot is a smaller version of Kirobo, an already-small robot that Toyota developed three years ago to join Japanese astronaut Koichi Wakata at the International Space Station as part of a study into isolation.
Now Toyota has decided to bring Kirobo's talent for communication closer to home and plans to sell the robot for around 39,800 yen to customers in Japan looking for companionship.
Kirobo Mini is only 10cm high when seated and can fit in the palm of the hand, meaning it can easily be taken pretty much anywhere, especially since it also comes with a small cradle that fits into the cup holder of a car. Despite its tiny shell, Kirobo boasts plenty of impressive features.
As you'd expect from a companion robot, Kirobo is able to engage in casual conversation, moving its head and hands as it talks. Kirobo also comes equipped with a built-in camera which enables it to recognize people's facial expressions.
By detecting tone and expression, Kirobo tries to detect user emotions and adjust its manner of speaking and moving accordingly. Toyota has also made it able to remember user likes and dislikes in an effort to make communication with Kirobo more meaningful, encouraging an emotional bond through tailored conversation.
Like 'a seated baby'
Many have noted that Kirobo is almost childlike in its behavior and appearance which Toyota has said was a deliberate design choice: "He wobbles a bit, and this is meant to emulate a seated baby, which hasn't fully developed the skills to balance itself," Fuminori Kataoka, Kirobo Mini's chief design engineer, told Reuters. "This vulnerability is meant to invoke an emotional connection."
It is admittedly probably much easier to emotionally connect with a robot that makes you want to fawn rather than cower. It's hard to imagine a less threatening looking robot than Kirobo.
Using Kirobo requires connecting via Bluetooth to a smartphone equipped with its companion app, which adds a monthly fee of 300 yen to the robot's price.
It might seem like a steep price to pay for a robot companion, but with more people than ever living alone in Japan, the simple communication and emotional connection robots like Kirobo are able to provide is proving to be incredibly popular there.
These companion bots must have some positive effects, since Kirobo is just one robot in a growing market of bots designed to emotionally connect with humans, which includes the less humanoid Jibo, designed by robotics experts at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and Aldebaran's humanoid robot, Pepper.
It doesn't reveal much, but the video below shows Kirobo in action, acting as a companion to a wide range of people at all stages in life: