Japan has a long cultural fascination with human-like robots. Literature, cinema and anime are filled with them, and perhaps not surprisingly, a large number of Japanese startups are focused on making anthropomorphic robots. I have to admit that this fascination never really made sense to me until Shunsuke explained it during this interview.

Our guest today, Shunsuke Aoki of Yukai Engineering lays it all out in a way that makes perfect sense.

We talk about Bocco, Yukai’s new social robot, and we do a deep dive into how the robotics industry is changing. And how developments in both artificial intelligence and the Internet of Things might make social robots not only possible, but positively necessary.

Shunsuke also shares his ideas about some of Japan’s big advantage in innovative robotics research and let’s us in on the one big thing that’s holding it back.

It’s a great show, and I think you’ll enjoy it.

Show Notes for Startups

  • Why Japan has a fascination with robots
  • How robots will be used in senior care and child care
  • Is there really a ghost in the machine?
  • Yukai’s product development process
  • How to use YuTube for market research
  • Would you trust a cute robot to run your home
  • Why the smart phone is an evolutionary dead end
  • What the Japanese government can do to support robotics industry

Links from the Founder

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The full transcript follows, but you can read a short summary of the interview here.

Transcript from Japan

Welcome to Disrupting Japan, straight talk from Japan’s most successful entrepreneurs. I’m Tim Romero and thanks for joining me.

Until today’s interview, I never really understood the wide spread fascination with anthropomorphic robots in Japan. The human like robots proliferate in both Japanese games and movies, and in a surprising number of Japanese robotics startups. Fortunately, our guest today, Shunsuke Aoki of Yukai Engineering explains it all in a way that makes sense. Shunsuke and his team were behind such products as the nekomimi, which are a pair of thought controlled robot cat ears and the AIBO robot and Bocco, their new family robot. We talk about their product development and their marketing strategies, as well as how the robotics market and the robot market are changing.

We also talk about the reason that anthropomorphic robots might very well have a critical role to play in the coming Internet of Things revolution.

But, I don’t want to give too much away, so let’s get right to the interview.

Tim: Ready to get started? Cheers.

Shun: Cheers.

Tim: I’m sitting here with Shunsuke Aoki of Yukai Engineering. Let’s see, you founded in 2007 to make cool consumer robots and gadgets, is that a fair description?

Shun: My company focuses on communication robots. We make something fun. We don’t make something that’s useful.

Tim: So, it’s more entertainment robots, not industrial robots.

Shun: Yeah.

Tim: Since you founded this company in 2007, you’ve had a string of really interesting, creative products.

Shun: Wow! Thank you.

Tim: I can’t list them all here, because we’d never finish the podcast. You had a really big hit with nekomimi, which a lot of our listeners might know and they might not. It was a set of robotic cat ears that responded to brainwaves.

Shun: Yeah. Brainwave and it can tell the state of your mind. Concentration and relaxed.

Tim: So your ears would go up and down depending on your state.

Shun: Yes.

Tim: That was quite a big hit when you first introduced it, two years ago?

Shun: It was introduced in 2012.

Tim: Is it still selling well?

Shun: Yes, it’s still selling well.

Tim: Ok. We’re talking about social robots. Your latest creation, Bocco, family robot, which is sitting in front of us here. But, it’s an audio podcast. I think this really represents what you were saying as a communication robot. So, can you explain a bit what it does?

Shun: Bocco helps you communicate with your family by exchanging voice messages between smartphones and the Bocco.

Tim: Ah, so it is an audio podcast. Bocco is a small 20 cm high robot, that sits on the table.

Shun: Right. Bocco stays at home for example, during the day parents work outside home and they can still leave message to their kids at home by using smartphone app. Parents can send voice message to this robot or text message to this robot and the robot will speak out the message.

Tim: What is the appeal of that? Instead of just parents sending children text messages or voicemail to their phones?

Shun: Giving smartphone to kids makes a lot of trouble.

Tim: So, it’s not a good idea to give little kids smartphones. That’s true.

Shun: Yeah. Give them a smartphone and leave it to them and they will all day watch animation, doing games.

Tim: So, the idea is that maybe when the kids come home, the Bocco robot would great them with the parent’s message.

Shun: Yeah.

Tim: It has sensors so it knows when people come in? Or something like that right?

Shun: Right, Bocco is shipped with accelerometer, which can be attached to any object like front door. And, the sensor will send you notification on your phone.

Tim: Someone would come in and open the door, the message would be sent to the parent’s mobile phone, the Bocco robot would greet, the kids coming home with whatever message the parents left for them.

Shun: Yeah.

Tim: So, I’ve been in Japan a long time. And, Japan has had a fascination with robots, forever. There is a lot of things like Bocco, which are robots that are sort of in human form. So, Bocco pepper, ASIMO, the AIBO you have over there. That’s a dog technically, but… What is the special attraction of robots having this human form?

Shun: Ooooohh

Tim: Why is that so appealing?

Shun: When people talk about robots, they talk about how they look. Technically the vending machines or the auto ticket machine at the stations…

Tim: Yeah, those are all robots. Technically.

Shun: Yeah.

Tim: But, they don’t look like people. We’re surrounded by robots. We use them everyday.

Shun: Yeah.

Tim: But, we don’t want them to have human form, so… I’m happy to have a TIVO record my TV shows, but I don’t want to come home and find TIVO sitting on my sofa, drinking a beer.

Shun: Yeah. True. And, like washing machine talks about how do your pants smell.

Tim: Right. We don’t need that.

Shun: We don’t need that. You expect them to

Tim: To just do their job and be quiet about it. So, I understand those robots, but I’m trying to understand this really special appeal of these human form robots. Which, have limited function. It’s not like a washing machine or a TIVO, but they seem to have a huge social appeal. Especially, in Japan. What do you think that appeal is?

Shun: I think it’s not special to Japan. In Greek myth there is a human created giant robot .

Tim: Yeah, that’s basically a robot.

Shun: And, also in the medieval Europe, many automatas, like chess(ing) automatas…

Tim: Right, the Mechanical Turk.

Shun: Yeah.

Tim: Was kind of a fake robot. It actually had a person underneath, moving it. But, everyone thought it was a robot. I don’t know if it’s unique to Japan, but let’s say it’s a stronger feeling in Japan than the US, to tend to treat robots socially, emotionally. For example, the government of Japan is sponsoring research on robots designed to take care of the elderly, and for robots to help with child raising. So, these are very social human interactions with robots. Do you think that people will welcome this interaction with robots the same way they do with people?

Shun: Yeah, I think so. I can only tell about Japanese people. I can tell you that the people here will welcome the robot’s assistance for eldercare or childcare. Because, for example, we treat pets like, care about our pets.

Tim: That’s true. People do treat pets like people.

Shun: Yeah.

Tim: Better than people.

Shun: people. As a thing, in Japanese culture there are a lot of things that are supposed to be treated as humans.

Tim: What kind of things?

Shun: Some shrine, the idea that…

Tim: The idea of kami? So, in Japanese traditional Shinto religion, kami is, which is translated as “god”, but it’s not really a “god”, it’s more like a spirit. Everything has a spirit and an essence and you think that makes it more natural to assume that robots and pets and everything has, of course has a spirit and an essence?

Shun: I think that’s why people love robots.

Tim: You just came back from the absolutely crazy Consumer Electronics Show. How was the reaction internationally? Did you see that people outside of Japan are treating Bocco in the same way that Japanese people treat robots? Or, is there a difference you noticed?

Shun: There is a difference. In the field is very different reactions for example, one US distributor really loves the idea, but the distributor wants the design like more toys and they think Bocco has no need to be design of robot.

Tim: So, they don’t want it to be in a human form robot.

Shun: Yeah, that’s right.

Tim: They want it to be in a little box or something?

Shun: Yes, in a box with typical or pink or girl toy color.

Tim: Ok. But, you know, the more I’m staring at this guy, the more I can kind of understand that a message coming from this little human-ish looking robot, would have a different impact than a voice recording from a phone. It’s a avatar.

Shun: Yeah. And, I believe every home will have an avatar in the next 5 or 10 years.

Tim: Oh, so let’s talk about your product development process. Because, you’ve had a whole series of very interesting and very different kind of products over the years. So, how do you generate ideas? How do you decide which ideas to build and fund? What’s your process?

Shun: We start from our personal experiences. For Bocco, I started this project because I wanted that kind of product to keep in touch with my kids, my own kids.

Tim: So, you start with something you would use yourself.

Shun: Yeah.

Tim: Ok. Yes, it’s much easier to solve a problem you have and you understand.

Shun: Yeah.

Tim: When you come up with an idea, how do you validate it? How do you make sure that it’s not some crazy idea that no one else, besides you and the team, are going to be interested in?

Shun: We estimate design and cost. In many cases the cost doesn’t make sense.

Tim: Ok, well that’s a good first check.

Shun: Yeah.

Tim: So, once you’ve figured that the price point is appropriate, how do you check that people actually want to buy it?

Shun: We always create videos and post it to youtube. We can tell by number of views how many people will love the idea.

Tim: Ok. Now, do you work with other studios and companies as well to produce these products? Or, do you do everything in house?

Shun: In most cases design, and circuit board design, mechanical design, and software design for that part we do everything in house. For the manufacturing part we outsource.

Tim: And, do you do your own distribution and sales?

Shun: It depends on the product. As for Bocco, we are partnering with DMM.com make. They opened a new online store dedicated to the consumer robotics.

Tim: Well DMM has been doing amazing things in the maker space.

Shun: Yeah.

Tim: DMM make facility is unbelievable. I don’t think there’s anything like it in Japan. You’re raising funds for the first time ever, right?

Shun: Yes.

Tim: So, why the change? You’ve been running so many years as a bootstrap.

Shun: Because it is time, we need to accelerate our growth. This type of communication robot can become an important part of people’s life.

Tim: The new funds will be focused on building more social robotics?

Shun: Yes. That’s why.

Tim: Are you looking to have a bigger line of products? Or, are you looking to spend the money on improved marketing or production?

Shun: We will put money on the development of the software side. There’s an emerging market of IoT products. Only some of them are really penetrated into the home market.

Tim: Right now there is a tremendous amount of creativity in IoT space.

Shun: Yeah.

Tim: So, the main purpose of the funding is just to increase your product line to make your software stronger, for the robotics side.

Shun: Yeah. This kind of communication robot will be used as an avatar for IoT products.

Tim: So, in a sense you’re seeing these robots as almost a UI.

Shun: Yes.

Tim: To backend systems that are running on mobile phones or Internet of Things.

Shun: Yes, exactly.

Tim: Interesting.

Shun: If you are in a very smart house, there is some you know the HAL computer in 2001?

Tim: HAL? Of course. Everyone knows HAL.

Shun: If you imagine that HAL type of AI is installed in your living room and controls everything.

Tim: Yes, that’s not an appealing…

Shun: Is it uncomfortable for you? I don’t believe so. I believe a more charming avatar to talk to, to speak to.

Tim: So, a more friendly, a more avatar, a more user friendly UI for whatever system’s in the background. But, that will be a big shift. Because, up until now, we were saying before, robots are everywhere, but they don’t look like people. The still look like machines.

Shun: Yes.

Tim: So, you think the Internet of Things is going to be what changes the desire to interact with knobs and buttons and want to interact with something that looks more human like or life like.

Shun: Yeah. And so, IOT applications, we control them through smartphones. I believe that using smartphone at home is not a good idea. Spend time with your family and everyone carries their own smartphone and they’re watching their screens, isn’t a good idea.

Tim: So it is a… It could be a group activity, where the robot is kind of participating.

Shun: Yeah.

Tim: Ok. Before you started raising funds, you ran a few Kickstarter campaigns. Right?

Shun: Right.

Tim: Why did you choose Kickstarter instead of or Campfire or one of the Japanese…?

Shun: Because at that time we already started getting preorders in Japan.

Tim: Ok. So, it was purely marketing.

Shun: Yeah. So, it’s for overseas market.

Tim: So, actually, tell me a bit about Yukai Engineering’s customers. Because, you’ve come up with a line of very interesting and different products, but you Yukai is not a brand. So, when you’re introducing a new product like Bocco here, are you selling it to your existing customer base? Are you going out and having to create a new brand with every product?

Shun: Because we are a startup. We are in the process of building our own brand.

Tim: So, that’s something you’re working on.

Shun: Because we have smartphones for more 20 or 30 years. I think design of smartphone is completed already and it will last for 20 or 30 years.

Tim: You might be right there. It’s very new, but once something, whether the windowing UI of a desktop computer or… Once a UI gets fixed it doesn’t tend to change much, does it?

Shun: Yeah. I have notebook from 1991, yeah you can …

Tim: I saw your computers, but I had one of those original Macintoshes. I did, it was in my dorm room.

Shun: And, I have a power book there and it’s like 1991 or something.

Tim: I remember those well.

Shun: Basically the same as a notebook computer now.

Tim: Yeah.

Shun: So, the UI doesn’t change if it’s fixed.

Tim: So, you think this human form avatar, human form robot is the next step in the UIs?

Shun: Yes.

Tim: Alright.

Shun: Yes. That’s our biggest challenge, to define the UI. Yeah, it’s not fixed.

Tim: No, it’s a wide open question, isn’t it?

Shun: Yeah.

Tim: You’ve been doing robotics a long time. When did you first get interested?

Shun: When I was a junior high student.

Tim: Ok. Well, I guess almost all junior high school boys are interested in robots. I think so. I was.

Shun: I watched Terminator 2.

Tim: Terminator 2.

Shun: Yeah.

Tim: I don’t know if that’s the best model for a social robot.

Shun: No, but I was fascinated by the idea of creating its own artificial mind. I was fascinated about that and I want to do the same thing in the future.

Tim: And you just got more and more interested from then on?

Shun: Yeah.

Tim: You studied computer science in college?

Shun: Yeah.

Tim: You went Todai, University of Tokyo?

Shun: Yes.

Tim: Which is by far the most dominant, considered the best college in Japan. So, after Todai, why start your own company rather than taking an elite career path at Sony or Honda or Mitsubishi, who are all doing really cool stuff in robotics?

Shun: Actually, I started my company during I was a college student with my classmates. It was the time of the .com bubble. I am excited to be involved with the emergence of internet.

Tim: So, that was back in ’99 or 2000?

Shun: Yeah.

Tim: But, even after the bubble burst, you still stayed at it.

Shun: Yeah.

Tim: Were your friends and family supportive of your decision to go out on your own?

Shun: Absolutely, my family was against that decision, especially my parents. They told me, crying, we raised in the hope of you’d be working for Sony or Hitachi, but you don’t do that. Why is that?

Tim: Why do you want to go out and make strange little, cute robots? Have the come around? Are they more supportive now, after you’ve had some successes?

Shun: Yeah, recently my company has media coverage. So, my parents finally then, they’re very happy about it. And, now they are relieved.

Tim: Good. It only took 15 years. You know, robotics really is changing. So, we talked before about how Japan has always been very strong in robotics, both the consumer facing robotics and industrial robots. But, the next phase in robotics really looks like it’s going to be driven by AI and software processes.

Shun: Software, yeah. So, this time it’s a question that Japanese companies still have strength.

Tim: That’s my question. Because, the US has always been extremely strong on the software side. And, the last… and they’ve always been pretty good at robotics as well, but in the last 5 or 10 years, there’s been some amazing robotics companies coming out of the US. So, do you thing Japan will be able to stay on top? To continue to win in this next phase of robotics?

Shun: I’m very skeptical about Japanese, that we will stay strong. But, I believe that we have a strong tradition designing robots, designing consumer robots. And, we also have a culture that welcomes robots. When we talk about computer software industry, business applications, market is dominated by the US companies. But gaming, Japanese companies have been very competitive.

Tim: So, you think the entertainment and social aspect of it will be stronger coming from Japan?

Shun: Yes. If you want to create a drone or autonomous driving technologies, you’d better go to US or China. When we talk about communication robots, we mean robots here in Japan. It makes sense, I think.

Tim: Alright. Well, let me ask you what I call my “magic wand” question. If I gave you a magic wand and I said you could change anything about Japan, laws, educations system, attitudes, anything at all to make it better for Japanese startups, what would you change?

Shun: Magic wand? We have large defense budget and if the government invested this budget to the researchers involving startups.

Tim: So, you think that you would like to see the government sponsor more startups to do basic research?

Shun: Yeah.

Tim: That would be interesting. Especially because, if you look at what’s going on in some of the Universities now, there is a tremendous amount of creative, interesting, kind of senior thesis, senior projects that are getting done and then just stopping after graduation. So, it would be interesting if the government could provide some funding to allow that research to continue on a small scale.

Shun: Silicon Valley is originally basically created by the Ministry of Defense.

Tim: Yeah. It’s something a lot of people don’t like to talk about, but yeah it’s … Defense spending certainly fueled a lot of Silicon Valley. A lot of America’s progress in robotics has been because of DARPA projects. So, it’ been direct sponsorship, though… So, you think the Japanese should have similar programs?

Shun: Yeah.

Tim: to develop strategic technologies. That would be huge. Yeah.

Shun: Yeah. Because, we spend too eldercare, health care. And it goes to the medical industries.

Tim: Yes, just to the really big companies and the big hospitals. There’s no innovation there.

Shun: No. There’s not enough research.

Tim: So you would use your magic wand to create a Japanese version of DARPA. To fund strategic essential research that’s open to anybody?

Shun: Yes. I read the company that created Roomba, they lived on the budget from DARPA for 10 years.

Tim: So many American robotics companies did. I mean…

Shun: Until they finally created Roomba. So, we need DARPA I think.

Tim: Well listen is there… You really need Japan’s version of DARPA. Well listen, before we wrap up, is there anything else that you want to talk about?

Shun: I believe that robotics, the design is the most important part. I think it’s our basic nature that creates something similar to ourselves. I think it’s an instinct that humans have.

Tim: That we want to create robots in our own image.

Shun: Yeah, we want something that is similar to us. That can take care of our surroundings.

Tim: So, Bocco not HAL?

Shun: Yeah. Not HAL, definitely.

Tim: Ok. Excellent. Listen, thanks so much for sitting down with me. This has been a great discussion. I really appreciate it.

Shun: Thank you very much.

Tim: Ok.

And we’re back.

I think Shunsuke’s suggestion about having a Japanese version of DARPA would be a huge boost to startups and innovation in Japan. There’s plenty of government sponsored R and D, of course. But, it usually involves allocating specific budget amounts to the same conglomerates to research specific technologies. DARPA’s open model, where anyone is able to compete to find the best solution to a specific problem, is almost unheard of here, but it really shouldn’t be.

Now, it’s obviously way to early to tell if Shunsuke’s vision of social robots acting as a front end, the user interface to a diverse collection of Internet of Things like connected devices will play out. Although, after our interview, and as I had to think more about it, I started to warm to the idea. After all, computer users ridiculed the idea of a Windows based UI, and come to think of it, many programmers still do.

The higher level of abstraction, the simplification and the friendly user interface won out very quickly. The market’s always been willing to trade functionality and flexibility for a polished user interface and a friendly experience. Hmmm. I suppose Apple would not exist otherwise.

So, maybe this time too, perhaps most consumers would greatly prefer to deal with a robot avatar, rather than dozens of individual IoT interfaces. We might get our robot assistants yet.

If you’ve got an idea about how we’ll be using robots in the future, Shunsuke and I would love to hear about it, so come by DistruptingJapan.com/show039 and let us know what you think. And, when you drop by, you’ll find all the links and sites that Shunsuke and I talked about and much, much more in the resources section of the post. But, most of all, thanks for listening. And, thank you for letting people interested in Japanese startups know about the show.

I’m Tim Romero and thanks for listening to Disrupting Japan.