This cute robot is the future of robotic assistants

Some are worried that robots will overthrow us all. Looking at how some of the robots in the DARPA challenge perform, you’d be baffled as to why anyone is concerned. Although, our feelings tend to change when you see the sort of creations Boston Dynamics is busy cooking up.

However, the role of robots in our everyday lives is only increasing and it’s time to start thinking about how to integrate them into society in a way that makes everyone comfortable. That’s where RoboPin comes in; Fujitsu’s latest robotic creation that plays the role of entertainer, advertiser, informer and helper – and it’s darn cute in the process.

Designed to be an approachable robot, RoboPin’s round head with a cyclops-eye camera and flipper-like arms conjure up images of EVE from Disney’s Wall-E. In motion, RoboPin’s movements are exaggerated but full of character. You can’t help but be drawn towards it, as crowds of journalists at this year’s Fujitsu Forum in Tokyo certainly were.

It’s no surprise, then, that Fujitsu’s currently trialling the robot as part of a “robot signage” trial in Taiwanese Family Mart stores. Designed to work in a similar way to digital signage to attract attention towards a specific product, these Family Mart RoboPins are supposed to pull people towards a product, inform them about it and point out where it can be found and bought. It also spouts phrases such as “it’s delicious” or company slogans to really drive home those consumerism vibes.

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Robot signage certainly makes financial sense for RoboPin, offsetting costs of installations via advertising budgets, but Fujitsu has bigger plans for this cute little robot.

Like many other nations, Japan has an ageing population problem. More people in Japan than anywhere else in the world live to be over 100-years-old, but society isn’t there to support them. Fujitsu sees part of RoboPin’s responsibilities as a companion for older members of the public. It could be placed in care homes or social hubs in remote villages as a means of communication and companionship.

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There’s also the potential for it to work like a remote doctor, allowing patients to speak naturally to RoboPin about their ailments and have the information sent back to a local expert who can handle the case properly without making the journey to a remote destination. Its central camera will be capable of facial recognition, meaning it would recognise members of the community it has been set out to help.

There’s even scope for the robot to be tied into other remote services, to help with remote bus planning, food shopping and more. In many ways, you could think of it as a glorified Alexa device, but with buckets more charm.

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RoboPin also has a role to play in assistance situations, taking up the place of a human advisor to tourists at train stations and airports, or even as a check-in assistant at hotels or workplaces. One demonstration saw a set of RoboPin units advertising tourist sites of note in a local town, with a small ticket printer located next to the device so curious individuals could pick up an entry ticket or coupon code to visit the site – armed with knowledge about how to get there from their current location.

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Interestingly, RoboPin doesn’t have to run on a routine or rely solely on its AI. It’s also capable of being remotely controlled by a human. Donning a HTC Vive, along with a stomach-mounted Vive Tracker, it’s possible for a human to pilot RoboPin’s head, arm and body movements. One example was a choreography simon-says, with a human-controlled RoboPin having to match the movements of a dance troupe of RoboPins.

Aside from being a gimmick for the show floor, human control of RoboPin allows for one individual to work remotely covering numerous locations at once. If preoccupied, RoboPin’s AI could take over to tackle queries until a human is available to respond to the situation. While RoboPin’s Japanese voice is certainly full of character, I’m told the English voice definitely lacks the same cutesy tone. It’s here that a human controller could really make all the difference, ensuring that people remain engaged in this flapping penguin-like robot.

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RoboPin may currently only be a glorified advertising billboard, but Futjitsu’s robot highlights the real potential for these devices in our daily lives. So, whenever RoboPin does eventually make its way out of Japan, I’m certainly ready to let the little guy enter my life.

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