When I was running RobotGalaxy, one of my investors commented that I needed a “barker” outside my stores to increase foot traffic. At first I was confused, but then I quickly thought of the many barkers on 14th Street screaming at me to buy their insanely priced merchandise. Yes, to many these seems like a good idea…
Earlier this week, SoftBank Group announced that its new Pepper robot will be available to businesses to fill the barker need, as a humanoid sales associate outside storefronts. The company is developing a customer support package and a service that allows businesses to manage a fleet of Peppers, Fumihide Tomizawa, chief executive officer of SoftBank Robotics, said in an interview in Tokyo on Monday. The Japanese wireless carrier and Internet company investor will reveal more details of the service at the SoftBank World event July 30 and 31, he said. I guess this will be an early “Christmas in August” sale – “these prices are IN-SANE!”
When Pepper went on sale to Japanese consumers on June 20, all 1,000 units sold out within one minute. SoftBank is targeting businesses to increase the robot’s installed base which Tomizawa estimates would have to be in the hundreds of thousands to support a community of developers and an application store modeled on Apple Inc.’s.
“We see Pepper appearing on sales floors, behind reception desks, in educational and health care settings,” Tomizawa said. “Who buys what and under what circumstances — Pepper could analyze marketing data to modify his sales pitch.”
Pepper has already won over Mizuho Financial Group Inc., which said in March it will use the robot in some banks from this month and may roll it out to all branches across Japan. Nestle SA has plans to introduce Pepper to 1,000 stores in the country by the end of the year to help out with sales.
The robot costs 198,000 yen ($1,600) and comes with an optional 14,800 yen monthly service plan giving users access to cloud-based voice-recognition and an app store. SoftBank is readying a separate plan for business users, Tomizawa said.
Featuring more than 20 motors and highly articulated arms, Pepper is capable of human-like body language. Its shoulders heave when in standby mode, imitating sleep. But it’s not designed for menial tasks. Instead, SoftBank founder Masayoshi Son is betting the robot’s friendly physical appearance will spur adoption of cloud services and attract app developers.
Son is directly in charge of the robot business and has said it is central to his 30-year vision for Japan’s third-largest wireless carrier. Son has taken an active role in creating Pepper, weighing in on decisions ranging from the use of wheels instead of legs to the minute details of its body design, according to Tomizawa.
The attention has Tomizawa fielding inquiries from Son, Japan’s second-richest man, including a 4 a.m. phone call asking him to come up with a list of possible patents by noon. Son has said he personally has applied for several patents related to Pepper.
“Son always brings full attention to every business he’s involved in, but it’s even more so with robotics,” said Tomizawa, who’s been with SoftBank for 15 years. “He’s really serious about this.”
While I have no doubt that Pepper will be successful in raising the curiosity of shoppers, I just think it is an incredible waste of resources that could be better applied to helping our most vulnerable citizens cope with terminal illness or aging.
Please note that over the next three weeks RobotRabbi will be taking a summer vacation…