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Robots at work: SoftBank plans to take Pepper to stores, offices

by and

Bloomberg

SoftBank Group is promising new services for its Pepper robot that will appeal to business users and help bring the humanoid to storefronts and reception areas.

The company is developing a customer support package and a service that allows businesses to manage a fleet of Peppers, Fumihide Tomizawa, chief executive officer of SoftBank Robotics, said in an interview in Tokyo on Monday.

The wireless carrier and Internet company investor will reveal more details of the service at the SoftBank World event July 30 and 31, he said.

When Pepper went on sale to Japanese consumers on June 20, all 1,000 units sold out within one minute. SoftBank is targeting businesses to increase the robot’s installed base which Tomizawa estimates would have to be in the hundreds of thousands to support a community of developers and an application store modeled on Apple Inc.’s.

“We see Pepper appearing on sales floors, behind reception desks, in educational and health care settings,” Tomizawa said. “Who buys what and under what circumstances — Pepper could analyze marketing data to modify his sales pitch.”

Pepper has already won over Mizuho Financial Group Inc., which said in March it will use the robot in some banks from this month and may roll it out to all branches across Japan. Nestle SA has plans to introduce Pepper to 1,000 stores in the country by the end of the year to help out with sales.

The robot costs ¥198,000 and comes with an optional ¥14,800 monthly service plan giving users access to cloud-based voice recognition and an app store.

SoftBank is readying a separate plan for business users, Tomizawa said.

Featuring more than 20 motors and highly articulated arms, Pepper is capable of human-like body language. Its shoulders heave when in standby mode, imitating sleep. But it is not designed for menial tasks. Instead, SoftBank founder Masayoshi Son is betting the robot’s friendly physical appearance will spur adoption of cloud services and attract app developers.

Son is directly in charge of the robot business and has said it is central to his 30-year vision for Japan’s third-largest wireless carrier. Son has taken an active role in creating Pepper, weighing in on decisions ranging from the use of wheels instead of legs to the minute details of its body design, according to Tomizawa.

The attention has Tomizawa fielding inquiries from Son, Japan’s second-richest man, including a 4 a.m. phone call asking him come up with a list of possible patents by noon.

Son has said he personally has applied for several patents related to Pepper.

“Son always brings full attention to every business he’s involved in, but it’s even more so with robotics,” said Tomizawa, who’s been with SoftBank for 15 years. “He’s really serious about this.”