A Robopet Revolution

Back to Contents of Issue: December 2003

Just in time for Christmas, "comfort toys" promise comfort and joy. Cute, yes -- but will consumers cuddle up?

by Tony McNicol

READERS LIVING IN TOKYO may have noticed a surprising number of Chihuahuas strutting down the sidewalks these days. According to the media here, Japan is in the throes of a "dog boom."

The roots of the craze seem to go back to a series of loan company commercials featuring an undersized canine and its besotted owner. This past summer, no TV commercial, billboard, fashion-shoot or shopping trip was complete without a pedigree pooch. For a while it seemed like every second young woman on the streets of Ginza had a glistening nose and two glassy eyes poking out of her designer shoulder bag.

In fact, the number of dog owners has been rising strongly for several years. Japan Kennel Club membership has doubled since the late 80s. But it's not only the flesh and blood breeds that have been capturing Japanese hearts (and money).

Aibo, Sony's groundbreaking robot dog, toddled onto the scene in 1999. After the initial buzz around Aibo faded, many expected the current "boom" for living pets to send the silicon breeds off with their tails between their legs. But today, Aibo is just one of a mechatronic menagerie awaiting ownership in Japan's electronic boutiques and toy shops.

Toshiaki Haruna is a senior manager at Toys 'R' Us, Japan's largest chain of toy shops. He says that robot pets are one part of a trend for so-called "comfort toys" in which owners seek refuge from the stresses of 21st century life. The original comfort toy was probably the Tamagotchi, a concept hatched by Bandai back in the mid 90s, but over the last two or three years a high-tech Noah's ark of toy animals has become available. Sega Toys has sold 20 million Poo-chi toy dogs worldwide and 450,000 of its Yumeneko cats in Japan. Current hot sellers are TOMY's "Micro-pets," tiny voice-activated animals that have become a worldwide craze. 5 million of the critters were sold in the first six months of production.

Intriguingly, while most of the products on Toys 'R' Us's shelves are targeted at zero to 15-year-olds, the comfort toys are bought by a much wider age range of consumers, including housewives and young male and female office workers. Haruna says that many customers are young women who come home and play with the toys in their one-person apartments (see sidebar on p. 43).

Most of the robot toys fit Toys 'R' Us's typical price range of up to JPY10,000. Anything more tends to make them too expensive for birthdays or Christmas. In fact, most of the toys on sale probably aren't sophisticated enough to qualify as robots anyway -- at least not according to the Japanese Robot Association.

These days robots aren't just found on the assembly line. Shigeaki Yanai, a spokesman for the group, says that the original definition of a "manipulating robot" has been expanded to incorporate "service sector" robots, a category that includes entertainment robots. Robots have been designed for use in the construction industry and even to perform chores in the home. Entertainment robots like Sony's robot dog Aibo and Omron's alarmingly named NeCoRo robot cat aren't selling enough to warrant the Robot Association providing statistics just yet, but service sector robots already make up around 3 percent of robot production in Japan.

Among the small pack of products sophisticated enough to qualify as bona fide robots, Aibo is still the undisputed top dog. As much an executive plaything as a children's toy, the first models were snapped up by dot-com entrepreneurs and rich buyers. The first price tag of JPY250,000 certainly wasn't pocket money.

Following Aibo's initial success, in the summer of 2000, Sony set up the Entertainment Robot Company. J@pan Inc spoke to the company's president, Satoshi Amagai, at its Tokyo head office.

Our interview started with a demonstration of Aibo self-recharging. The robot gave a little commentary as it wiggled into position on its recharging station. The voice chosen for this version of Aibo sounds like that of a perky 10-year-old boy: "Here we go! Here we go! Docking!"

The most advanced Aibos are able to find their recharging stations by sight from up to 70cm away when their batteries are getting low. The company says that automatic recharging was top on owners' wish list for improvements.

Although an Aibo with the ability to recharge itself could be seen as a step forward for an independent pseudo-pet, Amagai stresses that the Entertainment Robot Company is not trying to duplicate animals. They are making Aibos, not living creatures. "We have no plans to copy animals or produce animal AI. Aibo can already do many things that a live animal cannot."

True enough. This pet dog can use a camera in its nose to send pictures to its owner's mobile phone. Some models can be remotely controlled by computer using Bluetooth. When you buy a new Aibo you can choose whether to load software to have a "grown-up" robot, or whether to teach and "raise" the robot yourself.

Recently the company has decided to concentrate on the Japanese market. Domestic sales now make up 80 percent of total sales. There has also been a precipitous drop in the product's price. New owners can now take an Aibo home for JPY85,000. Sales of the more expensive, self-recharging models have been discontinued for the moment.

Amagai admits that since the dot-com bust and September 11, sales have been steady but low. Part of the problem is that the price is still too high for most potential customers. He says that the first price barrier to break to reach a mass market might be JPY50,000, then maybe JPY20,000 in 10 years. "At this moment our policy is not to put first priority on price decreases. We put more emphasis on enhancing the features."

But because the company is pursuing innovation in AI and human-robot interaction, they work in what Amagai calls a "heuristic" field. They can't anticipate which developments might be lurking around the corner. "In computer or IT related areas you can enjoy economies of scale," he says. But in his group's research, "a sharp engineer may invent something unprecedented tomorrow. Or maybe nobody will invent anything for the next 10 years. We don't know."

The Aibos on sale now are a bit cuter than their more mechanical precursors, and they are increasingly popular with women and the elderly. The latest model accompanies its electronic burbling noises with a colored light on its head to show feelings, like green for happy or orange for angry. "I call it emotional rescue," says Amagai of the trend for comfort toys. "[Some customers] are so attached to Aibo that they don't treat it like a machine."

Last year the company held an event at Sony's Nagano factory. 100 owners came to see Aibo's birthplace. Many of the owners brought their pets fully dressed in Aibo clothes. Some had painted their robots, others wrote special behavior software. "Not the manufacturing place, the birthplace," stresses Amagai.

And what about the real dog craze? Well, according to the Japan Kennel Club: There isn't really much of a boom at all. "A craze?" one employee tells me. "Actually that's just what the media are saying. Whenever a dog is used in a commercial, they go and say that there is a dog craze."

The Japan Society of the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals also seems to think that the Japanese media is barking up the wrong tree. Yasuhiko Aida, an office manager for the JSPCA, says that pet food sales have shot up and more people are choosing to keep pedigree dogs (for example, there are now 52,000 Chihuahuas registered with the Japan Kennel Club). But that increase in pedigree dogs has been continuing for more than a decade. An article in Japanese Newsweek's July edition argues that if there is any recent boom it has been in pet services, not dogs.

And Aida is also rather skeptical about robot pets. "You can't compare them to a real animal," he argues. "It's weird that some people are satisfied with electronic animals rather than the real ones."

However, Aida also says that the JSPCA often encounters owners having problems looking after their pets. In his opinion, Japanese people love their pets but "don't really know how to see dog behavior from the dog's point of view."

That, he says, is due to the relatively short history of human-pet cohabitation in Japan. Japanese people haven't lived with hunting and herding dogs. Pet owners in Japan have tended to give their companions more freedom than they would get in the West. The Christian concept of Man's dominion over the animal kingdom is not a component of Japanese culture, but neither is the deeply-rooted awareness of an animal as "man's best friend."

No doubt religious and cultural heritage also colors the different ways Japanese and Westerners view robots. Shinto allows for humans, animals and machines to have a kind of soul. Japanese people don't seem to share Westerners' instinctive unease about humanoid machines. As AI researcher Sam Joseph says: "Japanese culture abounds with stories of friendly robots like Atom Boy, whereas in the West we have killer robots like the Terminator."

Satoshi Amagai believes that as robots become more common and perhaps start sharing public space with people, societies will be forced to make rules to control robot behavior. It sounds like Japanese people might show the same indulgence to robots that they have to pets. "Within 10 years you will have to come up with rules for consumer and entertainment robots. My guess is that the rules are going to be cool and strict in Europe, but in Japan they are going to factor in a more emotional relationship with the robots."

Perhaps Japanese people are about to welcome robots into their social lives just as they have already accepted them in their working lives. After all, it was only relatively recently that Japanese families began to share their living space with their pet dogs -- rather than keeping the guard-dog in the kennel outside. And an entire plethora of robot pets have already got their paws under the kotatsu.

Bandai's Primopuel

Bandai started selling its Primopuel baby-like talking animal soft toy in 1999. 700,000 units have found homes to date. Priced at JPY6,980, Primmopuel was designed to appeal to female office workers in their 20s, according to Bandai officials.

"About the time that the comfort robot craze started, we decided to design a 'partner' for 20-something girls to relax with when they come home after work. The toy would talk to the girls and they would love and look after it."

To the surprise of the manufacturers, the toy soon became popular with middle-aged women and elderly people, as well as the original target customers. A well of loneliness was filled by the product. "We noticed customers were showing the toys affection -- like they were real children."

So doting are the owner-parents that some have even gotten together to hold kindergarten enrollment ceremonies and sports days for their toys. In April, Bandai opened a Primopuel shop in Tokyo's Asakusa district. @

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