CNN News - by Michael Drexler
March 25, 1999
(IDG) -- Matsushita Electric announced its entry into the
"pet" robot market on Wednesday 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 catlike 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 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 center, allowing health or social workers to
send local news, medical information, and encouraging
messages to elderly people.
A cat with chat
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 ("Today is Wednesday.
It is your day to go to the hospital."). Workers at a
network system center can upload a message into an elderly
person's pet and then determine when Tama will say it.
The centers 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 behavior, 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 center might
conclude that there is something amiss," and could
conceivably call the person or notify a health worker.
Matsushita, which along with an organization called Japan's
Association for Technical Aids, spent three years and around
$2 million to develop Tama. The company hopes to begin
selling the robot sometime after the year 2001 and expects
Tama to retail in Japan for around $500.
The foot-tall Tama weighs 3 pounds and will eventually be
incarnated in a variety of animal shapes.
Purrfect agents at work
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 and 2MB of memory to record past
The robot's expressions and movements are controlled by
"multimodal dialog" 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
"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."
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