SoftBank Corp. said Wednesday its Pepper humanoid robots will staff a cellphone store in Tokyo for a week this spring.
The firm said the static, talking machines will run the store from March 28 to April 3 in the city’s upscale Omotesando shopping district. SoftBank already operates a separate store in the neighborhood.
“I don’t know how this will turn out, but it should be a quite interesting experiment,” said SoftBank CEO Ken Miyauchi during a two-day exhibition called Pepper World.
The telecoms giant said it will deploy five to six Peppers at the shop. Customers will be able to ask the robots for explanations of the various cellphone options, and for those that decide to buy, the robot will attempt to complete the sales process.
However, SoftBank says it is difficult for the robots to check people’s IDs when signing a contract, so humans will be on hand to intervene.
Pepper made its commercial debut in June last year. Miyauchi said the device had acquired quite a following already, as more than 500 firms were now using it.
He said the machine may represent a labor-saving solution to companies short of manpower.
He gave examples of companies that are currently using the unit. They include 37 banks and financial institutions, and Nissan Motor Corp., which has the robot in about 100 of its outlets. He said in each case the robot is used to interact with customers.
Miyauchi said Pepper will evolve as its distribution widens, as SoftBank is now partnering with more than 200 firms to develop business apps for the Pepper platform. “I think this year will be the beginning of the smartrobot era for corporate (customers),” he said, referring to devices that are connected to the Internet and can use cloud-based artificial intelligence.
Pepper may have brought SoftBank an enviable amount of publicity, but it seems the device will not be reaping a financial return anytime soon.
Fumihide Tomizawa, who heads SoftBank’s robot arm, SoftBank Robotics, said the Pepper business will not turn a profit this year or next.
Fame is one thing, but commercial success, he said, will take time.