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NEC shows off consumer robot

September 2, 1999
Web posted at: 8:23 a.m. EDT (1223 GMT)

by Michael Drexler


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?"
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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 Electronics.

Mr. Roboto

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.

Michael Drexler is an Asian correspondent for the IDG News Service in Tokyo.

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