The newest design from Toyota doesn’t have four wheels, or any wheels at all. The Japanese automaker on Monday showed off a tiny robotic companion called Kirobo Mini.
The four-inch talking robot will be on store shelves in Japan in early 2017. Priced at $392 and small enough to fit into a car cup holder, Kirobo was created to respond to human emotions while engaging in conversation and moving its head and hands.
“He wobbles a bit, and this is meant to emulate a seated baby, which hasn’t fully developed the skills to balance itself,” said Fuminori Kataoka, Kirobo Mini’s chief design engineer.
It also comes with a “cradle” that doubles as its baby seat designed to fit in car cup holders.
Toyota also says Kirobo may make driving safer. The robot may shout “Oops!” when its owner slams on the brakes, start speaking to perk up a sleepy driver and offer praise once it’s arrived home after a long drive. Kirobo connects via Bluetooth to a smartphone app costing users about $3 per month.
Naoki Mizushina, researcher at Tokyo-based MM Research Institute, which studies the robotics market, said the robot was too much like talking toys, on sale at cheaper prices, and it seemed to lack concrete functions to make it a big hit, such as linking to online shopping or furnishing convenient information.
“Will this take off? It might be tough,” Mizushina said.
Toyota sees Kirobo Mini as a stepping stone to more advanced robots that will be able to recognize and react to human emotions.
A larger version of Kirobo spent 18 months onboard the International Space Station on a journey that ended in February 2015. Before returning to Earth, Kirobo became the first robot to speak in space, including with Japanese astronaut Koichi Wakata.
Kirobo will start selling in Japan roughly a year and a half after SoftBank’s Pepper robot, which initially cost about $1,900 along with a $145-per-month service plan that gave users access to cloud-based voice-recognition and an app store. Pepper has flown off store shelves in Japan; it is expected to be sold in the United States next year.