Matsushita Electric Industrial announced its entry into the "pet" robot market here this week with Tama, a robotic cat designed to be a conversation partner for elderly people.
Unlike other robotic pets, like Tiger Electronic's Furby or Sony's Entertainment Robot, the cat-like Tama will have more than just entertainment value, offering companionship and a variety of other services to the aged, said Matsushita.
"The idea [behind Tama] is animal therapy," said Kuniichi Ozawa, general manager of Matsushita Electric's Health and Medical Business Promotion Office. "A network system will enable the pets to speak to the elderly in a natural way, especially to people who are living alone, and this will make them more comfortable."
Tama can be connected via cell phone or ISDN line to a network system centre, allowing health or social workers to send local news, medical information, and encouraging messages to elderly people. Tama is endowed with 50 phrases, ranging from the light-hearted, "today is the karaoke party. Let's sing a lot," to more practical information like, "today is Wednesday. It is your day to go to the hospital." Workers at a network system centre can upload a message into an elderly person's pet and then determine when Tama will say it.
The centres will also be able to monitor elderly people's interaction with the robot, potentially allowing a health or social worker to spot dangerous or suspicious trends in someone's behaviour, said Matsushita.
"Tama is basically supposed to be a conversation partner for the elderly," explained Kenji Mizutani, an engineer for Matsushita. "But, for instance, if the pet starts talking and there is no response for a long time, the centre might conclude that there is something amiss," and could conceivably call the person or notify a health worker.
Matsushita, which along with an organisation called Japan's Association for Technical Aids, spent three years and 220 million yen ($AU3 million) to develop Tama. The company hopes to begin selling the robot some time after the year 2001 and expects Tama to retail in Japan for around 50,000 yen.
In order for the robot to perform its caretaker/companion role, Tama sports some spiffy new technology beneath its tawny coat. Primary among this is Matushita's so-called "autonomous agent" technology, which lets Tama predict when it should become active and engage in conversation, using a built-in clock chip and 2MB of RAM to record past interactions.
The robot's expressions and movements are controlled by "multi-modal dialogue" technology, which coordinates Tama's speech, facial expressions, and hand, leg, and ear motions. Microphones in its ears and a sensor in its head let Tama respond to questions, comments and scratches behind the ears.
"Tama doesn't move around, though," said Ozawa. "A group of elderly people we surveyed said they didn't want to get tired out chasing a robot all over the house."
The 30-centimetre tall Tama weighs 1.4 kilograms and will eventually be incarnated in a variety of animal shapes.
Matsushita is best known as the company behind the Panasonic, Quasar and National brand names. It manufactures a wide range of consumer products and computer components.