Panasonic shows off cute yet highly irritating companion robot

Panasonic has become the latest tech company to jump on the companion robot bandwagon, with an as-yet-unnamed proof of concept unveiled at CES 2017.

The robot is able to chat with its owner, display video and images using its built-in projector and, in future updates, will even be capable of playing games. Equipped with wheels, it is designed to sit on a desktop, and transitions from an egg shape when off to something that looks straight out of WALL-E.

However, it does have one serious downside: it’s been equipped with a voice that’s more annoying than the token cute character in a JRPG, surpassing even SoftBank’s Pepper with its saccharine tone.

Panasonic, however, seems to think it’s actually going to make people like it more.

“The robot’s child-like voice adds to the realism,” the company said in a press release about the bot. “Its voice and embedded projector work together to deliver natural communication that builds a sense of attachment with its human owner.”

Away from the irritating voice, however, the robot is intended more as a showcase of the tech giant’s network technologies, as the robot relies on cloud data to access its natural language processing abilities and resulting communication skills.

As a result, it’s unlikely to become a commercially available product in its current form, but instead looks set to be a precursor to a more sophisticated consumer-ready model.

“This test project builds on Panasonic’s innovations in robotics including battery and power solutions, vision and sensing, navigation solutions and motion control in a new appealing design,” explained Takahiro Iijima, director of Panasonic’s Design Strategy Office in North America.

“This is Panasonic’s latest effort in demonstrating network services in a friendly package, and we are showing this robot at CES as a way of obtaining feedback on its features and functions.”

Images courtesy of Panasonic

Despite the growing number of companion robots being offered, it’s not yet clear how exactly they are going to fit into our lives.

Panasonic has suggested that its robot could be used to support distance learning, but that is a use that is only going to appeal to a relatively small number of people.

Clearly the core goal of this type of bot will be to provide companionship, but to do so the robots are going to need to offer a greater range of personalities than is currently the case. A breathlessly cute voice might appeal if you’re a fan of sharing hordes of minion memes on Facebook, but for many of us it’s likely to prove just too annoying to bear.

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Renault has unveiled its take on the car of the future: a peanut-shaped, mulit-directional driverless vehicle that is capable of docking into a train of vehicles.

Designed by Yuchen Cai, a student of Central St Martins’ MA in Industrial Design, the vehicle is the winning design in competition run between Renault and the prestigious design school, and was honed during a two-week stay at Renault’s Paris studio by Cai this summer.

Dubbed The Float, the vehicle was unveiled today at DesignJunction, a four-day design event that kicked off today in London.

“Everyone has accepted that cars will be part of the sharing economy in the future – that’s what’s going to happen,” said Will Sorrel, event director of DesignJunction, this morning.

“This takes it one step further and these pods are this peanut shape so they can join together, so the autonomous vehicles can link up and join together if they’re going in the same direction, conserving energy.”

The Float by Yuchen Cai, winner of the Renault and Central Saint Martins, UAL competition

The Float is rather unusually designed to run using magnetic levitation – known more commonly as maglev – and would be capable of moving in any direction, eliminating the need for tedious three-point turns.

Made entirely of glass, the vehicle is designed to have sliding doors. Two bucket-style seats enable up to two passengers to travel per pod, and swivel mechanism ensures easy departure from the pods.

When the vehicle is docked to another, however, the passengers aren’t just stuck grimacing at each other through glass. Instead passengers can rotate their seats using built-in controls and power up a sound system that allows them to talk to the pod next door.

Those who are feeling less sociable can change the opacity of the glass, ensuring privacy when their neighbours are not so appealing to communicate with.

The Float is also designed to be paired with a smartphone app, through which would-be passengers could hail a vehicle as required.

“Central Saint Martins’ Industrial Design students really took this on board when creating their vision of the future,” said Anthony Lo, Renault’s  vice-president of exterior design and one of the competition judges. “Yuchen’s winning design was particularly interesting thanks to its use of Maglev technology and its tessellated design. It was a pleasure to have her at the Renault design studios and see her vision come to life.”

“From a technological viewpoint, the prospect of vehicle autonomy is fascinating, but it’s also critical to hold in mind that such opportunities also present significant challenges to how people interact and their experience of future cities,” added Nick Rhodes, Central Saint Martins programme director of product ceramic & industrial design.

“Recognition of the success of the projects here lies in their ability to describe broader conceptions of what driverless vehicles might become and how we may come to live with them.”