SoftBank unveils Android-like OS for robots

by Marco Lui and Takashi Amano

Bloomberg

Billionaire Masayoshi Son wants to create Android for robots.

A unit of Son’s SoftBank Corp. has unveiled an operating system that purports to offer a way to control robots just as Google Inc.’s software runs smartphones and tablets.

The platform, called V- Sido OS, can be customized for a wide variety of robot roles, including those used in home health care, construction and entertainment, Wataru Yoshizaki, the chief developer at Asratec Corp., said on Tuesday.

Japan wants to double the market size of domestic robot production to ¥2.41 trillion by 2020, according to an economic plan released this week. SoftBank recently unveiled a 1.2-meter humanoid robot named Pepper that tries to read facial expressions, joining Honda Motor Co.’s soccer-playing Asimo and Panasonic Corp.’s medicine-delivering Hospi-R machines.

“More and more companies are building robots,” Yoshizaki said. “Our platform is just software, but by making adjustments it can be adopted for many purposes.”

SoftBank set up its Asratec unit in July 2013 and injected ¥160 million into it, according to Asratec’s website. Electronics component makers Nidec Corp. and Futaba Corp., as well as Sanrio Co.’s robot unit, are using V-Sido OS, according to a June 11 statement from Asratec.

The machines can be controlled by hand signals or by a smartphone application, Yoshizaki, 28, said.

The unit aims to generate revenue through royalties from selling the operating system. Yoshizaki declined to give sales forecasts, saying the platform would be customized based on its usage, and profit may vary depending on the number of licenses sold.

The robot industry is in the early stages of development, and it is important to encourage companies from a wide range of backgrounds to explore its potential, he said.

“China is a market that is attracting a lot of attention because of their development of industrial robots,” Yoshizaki said at the company’s headquarters in Tokyo.

“In terms of technological progress, America is likely to develop both great software and hardware. We want to be actively engaged in both these markets.”

The idea of building an operating system for robots first came to Yoshizaki when he was a child, watching the Japanese animation series “Mobile Suit Gundam,” in which pilots control the movements of robots with levers and fight enemies in outer space.

About two decades later, Yoshizaki received ¥5.5 million in funding from the Information Technology Promotion Agency, an affiliate of the technology ministry, to develop software enabling robot movements.

In 2010, Son said that his vision was to create a society in which humans coexist with intelligent robots. The SoftBank chairman has said Pepper is partly a result of his time spent watching the TV show “Mighty Atom” (“Astro Boy”), an animated 1960s series based on a character who was unable to experience emotions.

Pepper will be equipped with a laser sensor and 12 hours of battery life, and will cost ¥198,000. It can dance and crack jokes, SoftBank says. The machine is on display at some of SoftBank’s Tokyo-area shops and will be available to consumers in Japan starting in February.

Pepper, developed by SoftBank subsidiary Aldebaran Robotics SA, does not use Asratec’s platform, Yoshizaki said, but the two companies may collaborate in the future.

Other Japanese companies are developing robotic technologies to perform labor and help the elderly care for themselves amid an aging population and concern over rising health costs. People older than 65 will make up 40 percent of Japan’s population by 2060.

Panasonic’s machines have been used in hospitals to deliver medicine and laboratory samples.

Cyberdyne Inc., the maker of exoskeleton suits that help in rehabilitation, has more than doubled since its Tokyo trading debut. The Ibaraki Prefecture-based company’s suits can be used as an aid for paraplegics.”Whether robots are useful or not, or how they will be useful, is still at a trial stage,” Yoshizaki said. “It is very important that different manufacturers work to expand the market.”