Sharp develops smartphone feature that speaks for itself


Staff Writer

Premium smartphone models have become powerful communications and entertainment tools with bigger and clearer screens, high-spec processors and camera quality as good as their compact digital counterparts.

But it has become tough for handset makers to differentiate themselves from their rivals, as hardware variations in cameras or chip speeds are too subtle for many consumers to worry about.

This is why Sharp Corp. came up with a new idea — a smartphone that speaks spontaneously to its owner.

Normally, taking a picture or surfing the Internet requires an action by the user, whether by touch or voice.

But with Sharp’s Emopa function, the user remains passive, as the smartphone talks and offers information without being asked.

The Osaka-based firm believes this passive-user style offers an entirely new relationship between human and handset.

“About a year and half to two years ago, we started a project to explore what we could do with smartphones, and we set a goal to rethink the relationship between the devices and people,” said Shigeru Kobayashi, general manager of Sharp’s new business strategic planning department, during a recent interview with The Japan Times.

He said smartphones have improved significantly in step with advances in hardware, but Sharp developers doubted they could achieve their goal just by looking at that side of the equation. So they also focused equally on software development.

And Emopa, coined from the phrase “emotional partner,” is what they came up with.

“Simply put, Emopa lets a smartphone talk spontaneously to the user when its convenient for the user. The Emopa smartphone thinks for itself and provides information that the user might want,” said Yasuaki Fukuyama, who is also part of the new business planning department.

To be sure, smartphones already offer voice assistant services, such as Apple’s Siri and NTT Docomo’s voice concierge, but they speak only when they are asked to.

“Smartphones are tools that respond to users when they input something. Emopa speaks at its own choosing, so it’s a user-passive service,” Fukuyama said.

Emopa comes installed on Sharp’s latest smartphone models using the Android operating system.

It has three personas — Sakuo, a male human, Emoko, a female human, and Tsubuta, a pig character. “Buta” is Japanese for pig.

While Sakuo and Emoko speak as if they were the user’s assistant, Tsubata is comical and basically says whatever it wants. Also, the pig character puts “bu” at the end of its sentences, the Japanese equivalent of “oink.”

The user is free to pick which character they like and can change it anytime.

According to Sharp, Emopa “learns” how and when to talk and what to say.

It determines the user’s home and workplace based on GPS and information obtained through built-in sensors, such as an accelerometer. It can even learn user habits like when they sleep and wake up.

“People don’t touch smartphones while asleep. So, it will recognize that the user has woken up by the motion of picking up the phone in the morning (using accelerometer information),” Kobayashi said.

Thus, when the user wakes up, the phone will say something like: “Today is February 17 and it’s 6:30 a.m. now. It looks like it will rain today. Please don’t go back to sleep.”

And when the owner comes home from work, it will say something like: “Yes, it’s home. It’s 9:13 p.m. You’ve walked 9,162 steps today. There’s no place like home!”

The phrase patterns were written by Kayac Inc., a “creative agency” based in Kamakura, Kanagawa Prefecture. There are tens of thousands of such phrase combinations, and many are comical.

For instance, a phone might say: “The battery charge is now less than 10 percent. I’m going to pass out if you don’t charge it.” Or if the user drops the phone, it could respond: “Ouch, I may be strong because I’m a smartphone, but please treat me more gently.”

Moreover, Emopa can offer information based on the user’s current location, such as nearby special events or details that would be useful for a tourist.

Since people might be embarrassed to have their phone suddenly talking to them in the middle of the street or in a crowded train, Emopa is designed to speak out loud only at home. When outside, it posts written messages on the screen.

Even though Emopa talks spontaneously to the user, it does not engage in conversations, and there is a reason for that, Kobayashi said.

The point is that it is a passive-user style. For there to be an exchange of communication, the user would have to input something, he said.

When a user inputs something, it means he or she wants concrete answers, but what’s interesting about Emopa is that, since it does not require input, it provides information that may or may not be convenient for the user.

For instance, Emopa might say there will be an anime festival during the upcoming weekend, which an anime fan might find interesting but someone else might not.

If the user finds it uninteresting, it can be ignored, but if it’s interesting, the user can act to find out more.

“We think everybody will have their own way of enjoying the user-passive feature,” Kobayashi said, adding that the user can have a “loose” relationship with Emopa.

Sharp is now selling smartphones in the U.S. through Sprint, a U.S. arm of SoftBank Corp., but Emopa is available only in Japanese for now and there are no current plans to add other languages.