Charlie, Yamaha’s (yup, the motor/musical instrument company) upcoming singing conversational robot, is now open for preorders. This is after an extended period of monitoring and testing for the last few months since its introduction last year.
Japan’s (Very) Famous Obsession with Robotic Companions
On many occasions and in several products, it has been stated time and again that Japan always had this peculiar fascination for cutely designed robotic companions in general. Many people culturally chalk it up to the country’s traditional animist culture, specifically the idea that spirits or gods reside in just about any object that exist in this world. Or, the idea that the Japanese people typically segregate themselves automatically into groups, where the robot acts as an interlayer “entity” that transcends the physical boundaries of these social constraints.
But for the most part, these things are simply designed as adorable enough to function as substitute pets. Slightly smarter than their biological counterparts, without any of the maintenance requirements associated with them.
We have the likes of NAO, the early 2000s era interactive robot that is programmed to create responses depending on the context of the user’s words. There’s Kirobo (Mini) from Toyota, who is pretty much the same but a bit more advanced in algorithms, and has additional
stalking recording functions for keeping track of events. Then we have that weird Lovot robot, unveiled last 2019 at CES, which doesn’t exactly partake in intelligent word exchange. Instead, it acts cute for users to cuddle with like an animal pet.
Now that we’ve wasted a few paragraphs for context, let’s introduce what Yamaha’s been up to in the cute-robots-that-interact metagame.
Charlie: The Stress Relief Strategy in Notes
Charlie was first unveiled by Yamaha last October of 2020 with a prototype meant to showcase the concept to the public. As seen in this product demo, it functions similarly to most previously designed interactive cute robots, but it puts a melodic twist into every statement that it says.
It is important to point out that while it may seem like this vocaloid/voiceroid physical chatbot sings in one tune, it is actually programmed to be “tonally versatile.” That is, it will change the beat and tempo, or even the theme, of its musical word delivery depending on the context of what it says. It might say a proud statement in a triumphantly peppy tone, while it may go all melodramatic when stating something a little bit more serious.
Combine that with current developments in machine learning and voiced chatbot technologies in general, and you have a cute conceptual robot that can thematically sing appropriately every time. At the very least, interacting with dear Charlie is meant to feel like you’re suddenly in a musical production.
As a concept for a stress relief device, such a design is actually quite convincing. We could definitely imagine the urge to chuckle every time you hear its super dramatic delivery of words.
Beyond Physical: After Care for the Heart and Soul?
Prior to the evaluation tests, Yamaha conducted a short research study on young working-age women around 20 to 30+ years old. It revealed that at least 84% of the undisclosed sample, had these issues in mind:
- Stress building up linearly as worries pile up
- Physical stress never as worse as mental stress
- After work hours, the longing for something to soothe cluttered and tired minds
Using these basic information pointers in mind, the consensus of the development team… was to create a singing robot. With more than 30 variations to its tune and singing genre, it is hoped that it can sync its learning abilities well to eventually be better at gauging whatever it is that needs to be stated to solve any of these three issues.
And so, the prototype was tested in December 2020, for a period of about three weeks, to see if any of its features were effective enough to achieve its goals. Generally, about 68% of the survey sample stated it had indeed achieved its goals as a singing robot. Around 24% kind of agreed that it had achieved some of the goals, while 8% said it didn’t do anything particularly noteworthy for them.
In total, around 92% of the sample had positive opinions about Charlie as a concept product.
As for those who eventually loved the product, more than 72% of the sample stated that they absolutely liked Charlie, 20% had mostly positive, but somewhat neutral opinions about it, while 8% yet again did not find Charlie endearing at all.
Maybe the 8% on both graphs represent the exact same people who just don’t like cute robots in general.
Afterwork Robot Buddy: The Musical
Aside from its melodic conversational savviness, Charlie also has a few more interactivity points, such as speech-synced arm and leg movements, as well as a few “I’m focused onto you” gestures. Well, this certainly reinforces its design for late-hour stress relief. As such, Charlie will be catered more to where most of the test demographic belongs: young adults with busy (and therefore potentially stressful) schedules. This is opposed to most other conversational robots, who are typically offered to either entire families or retired elderly folks.
As mentioned earlier, pre-orders for the Charlie units are currently underway. The intended release date for the product (at least in Japan) is May 13th this year. MSRP is offered at almost 25,000 yen (about 230 USD), with additional monthly 500 yen (4.5 USD) after the first month of use for various updates and maintenance.