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'How May I Help You?' Asks Jibo the Social Robot

By Barry Levine
July 16, 2014 11:10AM

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Jibo the robot has a number of skills. Sitting on a desktop, the 11-inch tall, 6 pound, WiFi-connected robot with a headlike-screen can swivel and move in place, offering expressive body motions. Jibo can use cues like movement, speech commands, and face/smile detection to know when a human is posing for a photo, which he can take.

Your customers sit in your office's waiting room, being entertained by a desk-mounted sociable robot named Jibo. The little guy also provides a new kind of kiosk as he engages with passersby, or serves as the no-lunch-break receptionist.

These are a few of the possibilities raised by the announcement Wednesday of what the robot's maker -- MIT Media Lab Associate Professor Cynthia Breazeal -- describes as "the world's first family robot." But the capabilities that could endear him to a family could similarly be applied to many business roles.

Jibo, according to an online video, has a number of skills. Sitting on a desktop, the 11-inch tall, 6 pound, WiFi-connected device with a headlike-screen can swivel and move in place, offering expressive body motions. He can use natural cues like movement, speech commands, and face/smile detection to know when a human is posing for a photo, which he'll automatically take.

'First in a New Class'

Linked to iOS or Android devices, he can take voice messages or verbally remind a person with an appointment reminder. He can identify a family member, and responds with both voice, body movement and short animations or videos on his screen. A see-and-track camera can be used to show other participants in the room during a video call with remote video-callers, as the remote caller indicates.

He can also present multimedia content and respond to human responses, for such uses as children's storytelling or, one imagines, presenting product information.

Jibo founder and CEO Breazeal said in a statement that her creation is "the first in a new class of family robotics that will humanize information, apps and services, and ultimately help people and families affordably address fundamental human needs that require high-touch engagement for the best human outcomes like education, independent aging and health management in the convenience of the home."

The company is currently engaged in an Indiegogo campaign to fund the first launch. The inaugural price for a Jibo is $499, with a developer package of $599 that includes a software development kit and enrollment in the developer program.

Jibo's Niche?

Brad Shimmin, an analyst for industry research firm Current Analysis, told us that Jibo appeared to be "very interesting," even though it "doesn't seem to me to be anything new in terms of ideas or technology."

He pointed to the acceptance of robot companions in Japan that display empathy, which have become popular among the elderly population. Recently, Japanese company SoftBank unveiled a robot model named Pepper that is designed to detect and respond to people's emotions. The Japanese social robot industry, Shimmin said, is "light years" ahead of what Jibo is shown doing.

Assuming Jibo performs as advertised, Shimmin wondered if it can find a niche that would justify its price tag. A key reason for that doubt, he said, is that many of Jibo's functions are available now through tablets or smartphones, and the question is whether there is a need for the solution Jibo provides.

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