Here’s one way to staff a mall information desk: A new Toshiba robot will start offering visitor information in three languages in a Tokyo shopping center next month.
Her name is Junko Chihira, and “she” has been giving a brief demo loop at the Aqua City mall in Tokyo’s Odaiba entertainment district since late October. Starting in December, she’ll be able to answer a variety of visitor questions in Japanese, English, and Mandarin—you can pick the language from a touchscreen display.
Responding to spoken questions could come by 2017, according to a press release. But for now, her role is as a presenter, according to Chihira’s creator, Hitoshi Tokuda, a long-time Toshiba employee. Tokuda envisions a robot like this could eventually be useful in situations from public facilities like banks, to residential homes and retirement communities.
This is the second generation of “Chihira” robots, designed by Toshiba to look like a realistic human. Why? While a simple kiosk monitor could play the same role, this will be a bigger attention-getter. ”We want her to be loved,” Tokuda adds, noting that thousands of people have approached her during the demo.
At this stage in production, her movements aren’t totally lifelike, nor is her speech, at least in English. To reduce weight and heat, she’s powered by an air-based system, so her motion isn’t convincingly fluid. Her speech is modified from a car navigation system, and it sounds like it. (Tokuda says people have very high expectations of robots!) But the goal is to be close to perfect someday.
For now, it’s an interesting-enough technology demonstration that plays into bigger trends:
- Tokyo wants to project a friendlier (and techy) image to tourists ahead of the 2020 Olympics. It’s investing in major new infrastructure, and an autonomous self-driving “robot” taxi service is in the works.
- Robots are increasingly going to take over service jobs, especially in aging Japan.
- And Japanese tech companies like Toshiba—which is also dealing with a massive accounting scandal—are looking far and wide for new sources of growth. For example, Toshiba opened an indoor lettuce farm in a former floppy-disk factory outside of Tokyo last year.