NEC's PaPeRo bot is coming to a living room near you.
Robots aren't quite ready to to kick down your front door and drag you into machine slavery, but they can help you avoid your family. A Japanese firm today announced plans to rent telepresence robots in a bid to make them available to a wider market.
NEC said it will rental plans for its PaPeRo robot will run as low as less than ¥10,000 per month, which is currently around $100. For that price, the 10 inch, three pound robot will sit around your parent's house, using its camera, speakers, and facial recognition system to help take your place at home and connect you to people via a conduit that's more intuitive to interaction than simply living Skype running on a laptop on your coffee table.
The main goal appears to be bringing bringing telepresence to the consumer market, and allow people to better connect with each other via robot avatars. The program will first be limited to Japan when it starts early next year, but the company expects to expand worldwide. In its announcement of the partner program, NEC said it's looking for business partners to develop applications for the bot using NEC's API and Cloud Federated robot platform.
According to a Kyodo report, "the robot can also be applied to such purposes as managing family members’ schedules as well as detecting suspicious individuals when family members are away from home." No word on whether or not the bot can defend against said suspicious individuals. but its soulless eyes are probably enough to deter any potential intruders.
Strangely enough if the personal robotics world, PaPeRo dates back to the last millennium. It was first introduced in 1999, and has had multiple iterations in the years since, including one aimed at childcare. The rental program uses PaPeRo Mini, a smaller version introduced a few years ago. The PaPeRo bots—which, by the way, stand for "Partner Type Personal Robot" if you were wondering—have thus been making occasional headlines for well more than a decade.
Their popularity hasn't really taken off during all that time, but NEC's latest effort to get cheaper bots into homes, hospitals, and stores may find legs. Only in the past couple years have telepresence robots really taken off, with growing popularity in schools and hospitals. The only problem is that they remain expensive—the VGo models that have found a foothold in American schools cost around $6,000 a piece, with up to $1,200 in yearly maintenance costs.
While PaPeRo isn't as mobile as the VGo bot, a rental price of around $100 a month is much easier to deal with, especially for someone looking to make sure they can easily connect with their grandma without having to play phone tag. NEC hopes that a cheaper entry price and more app development can get its baby robot into more homes, which does make sense. But let's be real: Is talking to a little plastic blob really that much more immersive than talking on a phone?