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Emotional robot set to hit store shelves in Japan next year

TOKYO -- A cooing, gesturing humanoid on wheels that can decipher emotions has been unveiled in Japan by billionaire Masayoshi Son who says robots should be tender and make people smile.

Son's mobile phone company Softbank said Thursday that the robot it has dubbed Pepper will go on sale in Japan in February for 198,000 yen (US$1,900). Overseas sales plans are under consideration but undecided.

The machine, which has no legs, but has gently gesticulating hands appeared on a stage in a Tokyo suburb, cooing and humming. It dramatically touched hands with Son in a Genesis or “E.T.” moment.

Son, who told the crowd that his longtime dream was to go into the personal robot business, said Pepper has been programmed to read the emotions of people around it by recognizing expressions and voice tones.

“Our aim is to develop affectionate robots that can make people smile,” he said.

The 121 centimeter tall, 28-kilogram white Pepper, which has no hair but two large doll-like eyes and a flat-panel display stuck on its chest, was developed jointly with Aldebaran Robotics, which produces autonomous humanoid robots.

Besides featuring the latest voice recognition, Pepper is loaded with more than a dozen sensors, including two touch sensors in its hands, three touch sensors on its head, and six laser sensors and three bumper sensors in its base.

It also has two cameras and four microphones on its head and has Wi-Fi and Ethernet networking capabilities.

But a demonstration Friday at a Softbank retailer in Tokyo highlighted the robot's shortcomings as much as its charm.

Voice recognition takes a while to kick in, when its eyes light up in a listening mode after the robot stops talking, making for less than spontaneous dialogue, similar to the frustration one experiences talking with iPhone's Siri.

Pepper was obviously more at ease going into its own chatter, such as asking “Do you do Twitter?” or “Is this the first time you ever spoke to a robot?” But it wouldn't really wait for an answer, rattling on to the next topic.

Sometimes the robot — which, up close, bears a resemblance to C-3PO in “Star Wars,” especially in its clueless look — failed to catch a speaker's words and would say: “I could not hear you. Could you say that again?”

When a person shouted in a big voice to test out how well it read emotions, it didn't do much except to say: “You look like an honest person.”

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