Omron ready to test demand for robo-cat
By Yoshiko Hara
Is there a market for a pet robot which serves no practical purpose? Following
in Sony's paw prints, Omron Corp. will introduce a limited-edition robot cat
with "fur" for more than $1,500, a price and marketing strategy comparable to
that of Sony's Aibo robot line.
The robot, named Necoro - neko, or "cat" in Japanese, + communication +
robot - is modeled after a typical American feline. Like Sony's pet robots,
Necoro does nothing useful. It just communicates with its "owner" in a cat's
manner. It is about the same size and weight as a real cat, but it does not
"Sensing and control technology are Omron's core competence technologies. We
developed Necoro as a combination of these technologies and a human/machine
interface," said Hideki Masuda, executive vice president acting as senior
general manager of Omron Business Development Group.
Necoro has tactile sensors in the head, chin and back. A microphone is built
into the head, and an image sensor is built into a nose hole. Two
accelosensors and one auxiliary sensor detect its position. It grows
emotionally, depending on how it is treated by its owners. Patting it softly
or hitting it will yield different behaviors.
Omron plans to market the cat robot in Japan first at about $1,530, with sales
limited to 5,000 units. The pricing and limited-edition strategy resembles
Sony's marketing for Aibo. Though the marketing plan is similar, "Necoro has
fur," said Toshihiro Tashima, project leader of E. Pet-Project at Omron
Business Development Group. "Touching is the first communication, so the fur
is essential. We want to pursue how close Necoro can be to a real cat," said
Sony has previously offered robots that resemble dogs, but they were not
realistic. Even Tashima, the robot development leader at Omron, admitted that
it is difficult to make a robot like a living cat. That halfway resemblance
may strike some people as incongruous, some analysts said.
Omron had announced the first cat robot prototype in September 1998. "At that
time, we used [Hitachi's] SH3 RISK CPU. The CPU used for this model is a lower
level CPU, compared to the SH3."
Omron did not disclose details of the Necoro. But the basic configuration is
apparently based on existing technology and components. Omron has not designed
any new LSIs for the robot. Omron currently uses a simple, proprietary
operating system. "For a large robot or a walking robot, a high-speed CPU
would be needed, but Necoro does not require such a CPU," Tashima said. "If
Sony's Open-R becomes a de facto standard, we won't hesitate to support it.
But it has not opened enough," said Tashima.
Since the first prototype, Omron engineers have been building up the Mind and
Consciousness (MaC) model. In it, recognition and emotion are fed to each
other to generate behavior. Necoro has six emotional expressions and 48 cat
sounds linked with emotion. It has a total of 15 joints. Two for each leg, two
for the tail and two for the neck. Eyelids, ears and a mouth each have one
degree of movement. "If we add one more joint to each leg, it can walk. But we
wanted to focus on communication for this model," said Tashima.
Sales begin Nov. 20. The company has partnered with one department store,
which will exhibit and sell the product at seven branch stores. Orders will
also will be accepted online.
At first, Omron plans to offer Necoro only in Japan, as the "support system in
overseas markets is not ready," said Masuda.
--- --- --- --- ---
Useless hypotheses, etc.:
consciousness, phlogiston, philosophy, vitalism, mind, free will, qualia,
analog computing, cultural relativism, GAC, Cyc, Eliza, cryonics, individual
uniqueness, ego, human values, scientific relinquishment
We move into a better future in proportion as science displaces superstition.
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