Humanoid robot Pepper is amusing, but is it practical?
While merrily chirping, dancing and posing for selfies, a robot named Pepper looks like another expensive toy at a San Francisco mall. But don’t dismiss it as mere child’s play. Pepper embodies the ambitions of SoftBank Robotics, an Asian joint venture formed by a trio of major technology companies that’s aiming to put its personable robots in businesses and homes across the US over the next few years.
If the technology advances as Softbank Robotics hopes, Pepper could become a playmate, companion and concierge. It could eventually respond to voice commands to retrieve vital information, make reservations and control home appliances that are connected to the internet.
That’s the theory, anyway. For now, Pepper is more amusing than practical, Forrester Research analyst J.P. Gownder says. For instance, Pepper has been directing shoppers to stores in the mall through text messages because it still isn’t advanced enough to say them out loud. And Pepper still has trouble understanding what people are asking, requiring shoppers to type in their requests for mall directions on a tablet mounted on the robot’s chest.
SoftBank is trying to improve Pepper’s capabilities by focusing first on the business market - retailers, hotels, auto dealerships and even hospitals. SoftBank hopes to use those environments to learn more about what consumers like and don’t like about Pepper and, from that, teach it more tasks, said Steve Carlin, the venture’s vice president for marketing and business development in North America.
Greetings in the mall
The recently launched test runs in Westfield Corp.’s malls in San Francisco and Santa Clara, California, mark the first time that Pepper has made an extended appearance in the US. The robots began appearing just before Thanksgiving and will stick around through mid-February. Carlin says about 300 to 500 people per day engaged with Pepper during its first month in the San Francisco mall. During a recent visit, kids flocked around the 4foot-tall humanoid as it spoke in a cherubic voice that could belong to either a boy or girl. Westfield views Pepper as a way to make shopping in the mall more entertaining and enjoyable at a time when people are increasingly buying merchandise online. —AP