Business / Tech | ADVANCES IN PROGRESS

RoBoHoN: Part phone, part robot, and Sharp's bet for the next big thing

by Kazuaki Nagata

Staff Writer

Since making its first public appearance last October, Sharp Corp.’s humanoid robot smartphone, RoBoHoN, has created a lot of buzz.

But the eye-catching 19.5-cm-tall robot, which can walk, talk and dance but still works as a phone, has also left many people wondering why a phone and a robot should be bundled together, and what Sharp’s long-term strategy is.

As it turns out, Sharp is dead serious about the project. Officials say the firm thinks a robot phone could be the next big thing — in fact, as big as the smartphone boom. The company is even envisioning a science fiction-like future in which everyone will carry his or her own robot phone that doubles as a personal assistant.

Experts say that a robot phone with a voice-based interface is indeed an innovative concept and that more makers are likely to release similar products. But they also say it will take time for such phones to win the hearts of consumers given the dominant popularity of smartphones and the hefty price tag of robot phones.

“It’s not that smartphones will be replaced with robot phones in a year or two … but we think robot phones like this, which are controlled mainly by voice, will spread more widely,” said Miho Kagei, who heads the product planning department at Sharp’s consumer electronics unit.

The release in Japan of RoBoHoN, priced at ¥198,000, on May 26 was the culmination of a three-year effort by Sharp during which it searched for a hit product to follow the smartphone boom.

Kagei’s team came up with the idea of making smartphones somehow more personal. Then they turned to well-known robot designer Tomotaka Takahashi, who suggested that they turn a smartphone into a robot.

But there were some skeptical voices within Sharp about the project during the development process, she said.

“People often asked us why a communication robot and smartphone have to be combined,” said Kagei.

Yet the members of the development team believed in the idea, thinking the product would build on the firm’s strong track record in manufacturing mobile phones.

Also, Sharp wanted a gadget that would appeal to people’s emotions, and decided that phones would be the best device, given that people always carry them and often feel attached to them, she said.

In addition, given that smartphones have become a platform for apps that can provide a variety of content and services like games and music, using that platform was essential, she explained.

Another feature of the product is the voice-controlled interface.

RoBoHoN has a small 2-inch touch panel on its back that people can use in the same way as a smartphone’s touchscreen, but Sharp hopes users will talk to the robot to make calls, send emails or take pictures.

“We are now so used to a touch-panel-based interface, so we know that it’s difficult to completely switch to voice-control interface,” said Kagei.

Many tech firms are looking into the potential of voice-based interfaces, and more products have been launched recently.

The quality of voice-controlled interfaces remains poor, however, with machines often mishearing people.

But Sharp “really worked hard to brush up the voice-based interface” so that RoBoHoN can perform tasks such as taking photos and sending emails without users feeling much stress, said Kagei.

RoBoHoN still faces challenges in its communication abilities, and Kagei admitted it can only handle simple, pre-programmed conversation.

But the robot will collect data from its communications with users and store it on servers to improve its conversation skills over time, she said.

Tsutsumu Ishikawa, a journalist covering the mobile phone industry who has used RoBoHoN, said its voice recognition ability seems quite high. He said he also has SoftBank’s humanoid robot Pepper, but that RoBoHoN is the better of the two when it comes to voice recognition accuracy.

Ishikawa said he sees potential in this type of robot phone. “I think it’s new that you operate a phone with your voice,” he said.

He noted that Apple’s Siri and Google’s OK Google also use voice technology, but said clients are uncomfortable using handset-based services. “It feels weird to talk to smartphones,” he said. “Talking to a robot feels right.”

The product, though, has at least two major hurdles to clear.

One is that the robot phones will have to prove they are more useful than current smartphones, or people will not be motivated to get one.

Kagei believes that, as RoBoHoN learns about users and improves its ability to communicate, it will reach a level where it can spontaneously give information that users want and serve as their personal assistant.

Ishikawa said smartphones are much more convenient for users to type messages, browse the internet and watch movies. Because young people are so used to them, it will be hard to argue for a switch to robot phones.

But the company might see success with senior consumers who have never used smartphones.

“Some of those who haven’t switched to smartphones, such as senior users, think smartphones are not easy to use. (But) RoBoHoN is rather simple since they can just ask it to learn today’s weather or to purchase something,” Ishikawa said.

The second hurdle is the ¥198,000 price tag.

“We really pondered the price. Of course, some people in the company suggested that we set a lower price, similar to those of average smartphones,” said Kagei.

RoBoHoN may be expensive as a phone but not as a robot, since it’s equipped with 13 motors and a projector, in addition to being a smartphone, Kagei said.

Plus, as Sharp wanted to introduce a product with a new concept to the world, it wanted to provide the best it could, she said.

Asked if the product’s launch might be premature, Kagei said that, while it’s true that RoBoHoN’s abilities are still limited, Sharp wanted people to experience life with robots sooner rather than later.

“We don’t know if it will come five years or 10 years from now, but we wanted to start promoting the idea of a life with robots,” she said.

By launching early, the firm can test its interaction with people and collect data, based on which the robot will improve and eventually “cultivate a future in which robots and people will have smooth communications,” she said.

This section features promising new technologies that are still under development or have just hit the market. It appears on the second Monday of each month (or Tuesday when Monday is a press holiday).