NEC shows off consumer robot

CNN News - by Michael Drexler

September 2, 1999

TOKYO (IDG) -- NEC's bid to build a robot for the everyman
rolled across the floor of the company's research and
development center recently. "Mother?" it chirped in a
synthesized whine, gazing with its mechanical eyes at
Yoshihiro Fujita, project manager of NEC's R&D group.

The pudgy robot, which resembles the character Cartman in
the popular U.S. cartoon South Park, cocked its head forward
to get a closer look at its master. "Oh no, I made a
mistake!" the robot squealed, "Yo-chan! (a nickname derived
from Fujita's first name), Do you want to do something?"

The Personal Robot R100, which has been under development at
NEC since 1997, marks the company's ascension into a select
group of Japanese electronics makers who want to populate
everyone's homes with robots.

This year, industry heavyweights Matsushita Electric
Industrial and Sony have entered the robotic barnyard,
launching a robotic cat called Tama, and a dog-like beast
named Aibo, respectively.

The human-like NEC machine is potentially a higher life form
than either Tama or Aibo. The robot can recognize 300 vocal
command words and identify the faces of up to 10 people, a
feat the other robots can't perform, according to NEC.

But the R100 wasn't on its best behavior recently when the
robot put on a stumbling demonstration of its skills at
NEC's Incubation Center. Responding to voice commands, the
prototype can remotely control a TV and air-conditioner,
send and receive e-mail, and surf the Net. The robot often
became confused, however, when confronted with the face of a
new master, emphatically insisting, for example, that Fujita
was its "mother."

A 75MHz, Intel 486 DX4 processor controls the movement of
R100, but most of the processing power to run the
recognition software is handled by a PC connected to the
robot. The PC will have to be shrunk down and fitted inside
the knee-high robot to enable R100 to act completely
autonomously, Fujita said.

The R100 sees through a one-third inch CCD (charge coupled
device), stays powered for two hours and will charge up
again in three hours, said Toshikatsu Hosoi of NEC Home

While Sony's Aibo has already gone on sale, don't expect the
R100 to hit stores anytime soon. NEC's mechanical beast is
still very much in the developmental stage and Fujita
expects that it will take two more years of testing before
the company even considers marketing the robot.

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