Softbank's cute social robot Pepper, which was out of stock within just a minute of its launch in Japan, will soon be stealing the hearts of U.S. consumers as fleets of the robots gradually make it to retail stores and other venues across the country.
Pepper was on display at CES 2017, showing some new dance moves, word games, musical interactivity and its potential to serve as a bartender when connected with certain smart-home devices.
I visited with Pepper in New York last fall, and it appears that in just a few months, the robot's developers have made great strides. What seemed like just a display model with stiff gestures, spouting canned dialogue, has now become a robot with more expressive movements, a personality, a sense of humor and even a dash of potty-mouth when appropriate.
"The highlight and the differentiator for us is, we work on this character called Pepper, this persona, this presence and all the nuance of this user experience," said Omar Abdelwahed, head of studio at SoftBank Robotics America, during a demo at CES. "The last part of it is a screen, the first part of it is voice, emotion, animation, all to create this sort of relatedness so that you actually forget it's a robot."
But don't expect to be able to buy a home robot that can do your chores, make you dinner, fetch you a beer and engage you in deep conversations just yet. If there's even a way to combine the technology to perform all of those tasks, it could cost millions of dollars to put it into a single robot, said Chris Norris, director of marketing at Softbank's U.S. division.
Pepper models will be rolled out in the United States first as hospitality ambassadors at hotels and to help shoppers at retail stores and car dealerships.