We all imagine that the first country to embrace domestic humanoid robots en masse is going to be Japan. But which robot is going to be the first to capture the public’s imagination enough to become an indispensible household item? Fujisoft is pinning its hopes on the new humanoid robot named Palro, which was showcased this week.

Palro has two things going for it. Standing at a diminutive 39.8 cm in height and speaking in a helium-pitched voice, it’s unthreatening and cute. Perhaps the bigger plus, though, is that Palro can be programmed via an open source Ubuntu operating system.  Consumers can not only download new functions (for example, a dance program), but they can also create their own C++ programs  so its functionality isn’t limited to the original program.

Palro is equipped with moving arms and legs, a 3-megapixel camera, Wi-Fi capability and microphones. The tricks it performed at Fujisoft’s recent demo included acting on voice commands, reading out news and weather reports, and dancing. Palro will also be able to interact with household devices such as televisions or cameras. Nifty, yes, but crucial?

Palro’s other big drawback is its cost. A humanoid house robot needs to be affordable, and the price tag of ¥298,000 puts the cute bot out of the reach of many Japanese households.

Perhaps Japan is on the bleeding edge of robot technology, but it’s worth noting that Meccano/Erector developed a similar toy robot four years ago called Spykee that patrols your house, relaying images and video so you can remotely check that your home is secure. It doesn’t talk or dance, but it can be used as an Internet phone and an MP3 player, and power-users can write their own programs for Spykee (game of chess, anyone?). The other glorious attraction for geeks is that they can assemble and customize Spykee themselves, and it costs only $179.

When it goes on sale on March 14, Palro is expected to be bought by educational institutions for research purposes, and hopefully users will devise some interesting programs to increase the robot’s functionality. Only time can tell whether these programs will succeed in getting the robot in the homes of the general public.

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