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Softbank’s New Robot, “Pepper”

June 12, 2014

On the June 5th, Japanese telecom giant SoftBank announced that it’s entering the robot business.  Its first offering is impressive both in terms of its capability, and its unbelievably low price.  Meet “Pepper.”

Pepper is a 120-cm tall, 28-kg half-humanoid robot on an omniwheel base.  From the waist up, it looks a lot like (French robotics company) Aldebaran‘s NAO, and this is no coincidence; Pepper was also developed by Aldebaran, which Softbank acquired earlier this year.  But Pepper is substantially bigger, more autonomous, and — somehow — a fraction of the price.

Pepper features speech recognition and synthesis in several languages.  It also sports advanced machine vision that can visualize its 3D environment as well as recognize basic human emotions, and it’s programmed to adjust its behavior based on the emotional state of the people around it.  When Pepper was introduced, SoftBank president Masayoshi Son said, “Today our challenge is to give a robot the gift of feelings.  This is a historic turning point.”

Pepper started work last week as a greeter at the Softbank store in Ginza, and is expected to appear in more stores soon.  Here’s a video from Robots-Dreams of Pepper on the job:

The real buzz, however, comes from SoftBank’s announced plans to sell this robot to the home market starting next February, with a base price of 198,000 yen.  That’s under $2000 in US dollars.  Compare this to its smaller sibling, NAO, which was originally $16K, and only recently became available for $8000.  How this is possible appears to be beyond anyone’s understanding (including my own).  Pepper has 17 high-strength actuators, two HD cameras, four microphones, multiple touch sensors, laser and ultrasonic rangefinders, and a touch screen tablet, as well as batteries providing over 12 hours of continuous runtime.  When its batteries get low, Pepper can autonomously navigate to its charging base.

While physically, Pepper isn’t all that capable — its hands are mostly good for shaking, dancing, and gesturing — Pepper seems to excel at conversation.  It can perform the sort of tasks that Siri does today, responding to queries about news or weather, telling jokes, and so on.  But unlike Siri, Pepper is embodied, and can actually see things in its environment.  This suggests the possibility of games like hide-and-seek, jobs like greeting visitors, or even just being glad to see you when you get home.  Think of it as a cross between Siri and AIBO — or if you prefer, as the first protocol droid, C-3PO’s distant ancestor.

What does all this mean for us in the robotics hobby?  Well first, if Softbank really does manage to sell this thing for under $2000, it will be an irresistible bargain.  The parts alone would cost thousands of dollars more than that; indeed, I don’t see why someone couldn’t make a profit buying Peppers, tearing them apart, and selling the parts on eBay — except that anybody who would buy such parts could probably just buy a Pepper of their own.  So if nothing else, hobbyists should snap these up for the parts they contain.

Second, while Pepper’s hardware is not likely to be very easily hackable (short of a complete tear-down), Aldebaran is encouraging software development.  Their software development kit (SDK) includes a 3D simulator and libraries for C++, Python, .NET, Urbi, Java, and JavaScript.  The SDK runs on top of Aldebaran’s custom OS, NAOqi, which is common between both Pepper and NAO; indeed, it is anticipated that some robot apps may work on both models.  Its size, autonomy, and sensory capabilities open up all sorts of interesting possibilities to the software developer.

While robot “app stores” have been tried before, they haven’t really caught on, mainly because robots themselves have never really caught on.  This is probably because robots have always been some combination of (1) expensive (like NAO), (2) too hard for average users (like most hobby humanoids), or (3) too limited in capability (like i-Sobot).  Pepper looks poised to change that.

I don’t understand how Softbank can sell such a great robot for such a low price, but if they can, this might be the one that finally gets robots into homes in a big way.  And that means, at last, a market for robot apps.

Sources: Nikkei Quick News, Aldebaran, Engadget, IEEE Spectrum

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4 Comments
  1. RobotGrrl permalink

    I’ll state the obvious: It’s bigger. That is why it’s cheaper. Mobile robots are usually expensive because small powerful motors and small, energy-dense rechargeable batteries are both very expensive things. Legs or non-wheeled locomotion require an actuator per joint. BUT…

    …once you have a 28Kg (61lbs) wheeled product, you can buy big, cheap batteries to put in the base and big cheap motors to drive it around. As you state in the article, “its hands are mostly good for shaking, dancing, and gesturing” which means there aren’t motors or servos in the hands that are strong enough to do more than move and close plastic fingers.

    I’m not saying Pepper isn’t awesome- I think the company is right to drive the price point down low so more people will buy it. The niftiness is in the software though, not in some miraculous cost cutting bill of materials.

    • You have some good points, but I’m not entirely convinced. When you double the size of an arm, its mass (in general) goes up by a factor of 8, and the lever length also doubles, which means the torque required goes up by a total factor of 16. That’s why in humanoid robotics, bigger robots have always been a lot more expensive than smaller ones — not just a little more expensive, but a LOT more expensive.

      But on the other hand, this robot is only half-humanoid; none of its joints need to be all that strong. But if you put cheap weak motors in arms of that size, I think they would shake and wobble, just from the weight and leverage of the arms themselves. Pepper’s motions look butter-smooth, which suggests to me some pretty high-quality servos there.

      You make good points about the batteries and base motors, though. Those don’t need to be anything too fancy. And you’re right, the real magic here is going to be in the software (just as with JIBO, which has even less robot-ness than Pepper!).

  2. Paul permalink

    Im interested to see what the apps will provide to the robot, especially if it involves lifting / carrying or more advanced AI / Autonomous behaviour. EG “Pepper please pass me the newspaper” or “Pepper patrol the house every hour through the night and notify me of a problem” ETC.

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