The producer of the wildly popular PaPeRo robot
I want to work with partners to make PaPeRo even smarter and more appealing.
I feel like the manager of an up-and-coming star.
--Tell us what specific role you play in the PaPeRo business.
Ishiguro: In short, my job is to strengthen and expand new business using PaPeRo and PaPeRo petit. In more concrete terms, I am responsible for all tasks other than detailed specification design and specific manufacturing development, including business plan creation, overview design, production requests, development management, and requests for application development. Of course, I also serve as liaison when there are offers from companies or universities to trial PaPeRo. I sometimes teach kids about robots while they play with PaPeRo at events for children as well. I also do a lot of promotional activities on TV and in magazines. You could think of me as a manager going around to promote an up-and-coming star. My other important tasks include considering new applications for PaPeRo while holding discussions with customers, and creating new business and services in collaboration with companies.
--What sort of things have you done to expand the PaPeRo business?
Ishiguro: PaPeRo and PaPeRo petit show promise in a range of fields, including as communication robots that watch over their owners and provide information, as well as for security monitoring.
NEC has carried out proof-of-concept tests in-house as well as with customers. For example, in reception and security operation tests carried out within the NEC group, we verified that PaPeRo was able to carry out reception duties smoothly. PaPeRo would address visitors directly, politely asking them to wait among other things, and providing remote monitoring combined with cutting-edge facial recognition technology. In an eco solution that linked PaPeRo with the office energy management system, we carried out tests in which PaPeRo asked employees to turn down the air conditioning temperature.
Unlike sending temperature instructions via text or broadcast, I think PaPeRo's friendly communication helped to raise the eco awareness of employees and inspire them to take action without causing undue stress. Additionally, we linked PaPeRo with smart devices for the Remote Guardian System we exhibited at CEATEC. This proved that PaPeRo was capable of attentively watching over people almost like another member of the family, for example enabling you to use a smart device to communicate face-to-face with a grandmother who lives far away, or get PaPeRo to tell her it is time to take her medicine by sending a message.
--Tell us about initiatives with other companies utilizing PaPeRo.
Ishiguro: We have carried out a whole range of initiatives with customers and partner companies.
For example, in an initiative with the Research Institute of the National Rehabilitation Center for Persons with Disabilities, we conducted trials for providing support to aid the independent action of patients with dementia. These trials involved PaPeRo speaking to dementia patients living in care facilities to encourage them to get ready to go out or take their medication. An initiative with LIXIL Group combined PaPeRo with HEMS and other energy management systems as well as security devices. In this joint experiment, PaPeRo notified others when too much electricity was being used or when a window was open, based on data collected by devices and sensors.
These are just some of the many tests we have carried out with various companies and organizations on top of NEC's in-house experiments. These results and accumulated know-how have left us very confident in the potential and appeal that PaPeRo holds. On the other hand, we do sometimes turn down offers from customers to test out our robots. Communication robots are not all fun and games like you might see in a cartoon. After examining offers from a safety perspective, if we feel the proposed use would be difficult to realize, we turn down the offer rather than making a compromise. This is part of our confidence that we have cultivated though experience.
Seeking partners to expand the application of PaPeRo
--What is NEC currently putting the most effort into with regard to the commercialization of PaPeRo?
Ishiguro: In November 2013, NEC launched a system called the "PaPeRo Partner Program" to expand our communication robot business. This is a new initiative in which NEC provides a platform integrating communication robots and the cloud, and joins forces with a variety of companies to develop sustainable business opportunities. NEC is currently seeking a broad range of partners, including those who can develop applications that create new appeal and value for PaPeRo, as well as business partners wanting to build new services using PaPeRo. We would like to spread the appeal of PaPeRo to a wide range of areas, such as delivery, medical treatment and caregiving, event guidance, and security, in collaboration with partners in all manner of fields and business categories, including corporations, research institutions, public agencies, and software development companies. We announced this Partner Program for the Japan market, and it is attracting a lot of attention both here and internationally. Right now about half of the inquiries we get are from overseas, so we feel this business scheme has received a great response.
--What struggles did you face along the road to commercialization of communication robots?
Ishiguro: I first encountered PaPeRo in 2002. At the time, development of communication robots was being carried out at NEC's laboratories. It all began when the subject of commercialization of these robots came up, and I offered to take on the task. As this was a new business we were pretty much starting from scratch, so we had to do everything from concept through finishing ourselves until we reached the test marketing stage in 2009. Back then we'd alternate between making a breakthrough and then hitting a brick wall on a daily basis. We still had no concept of how the business would go, or who we should approach with it. All we had was the dream of making this product a reality, and that gave us the momentum to overcome the obstacles we faced. Now that we are seeing such a lot of interest from customers in Japan and overseas, it makes all that hard work worth it.
One thing I feel a little stressed about right now is plane travel. When I take PaPeRo with me on business trips, I sometimes encounter problems. This doesn't happen with PaPeRo petit, as it can be packed away into a small bag, but the larger PaPeRo R500 has caused some issues on my trips. When in its tailor-made bag, the PaPeRo R500 can't be stored in the plane's overhead lockers. But because it's made of delicate components, I can't check it in as baggage, either. So I explain the situation to the airline staff, and ask them to let me place it in a safe area on board. Looking on the bright side, this is only an issue because we've had so many inquiries from Japan and other countries.
Creating a kinder, more friendly society
--Tell us about your plans and the outlook for future business.
Ishiguro: Through a range of tests, we've built up solid experience and a good track record together with PaPeRo. One important mission looking forward is to quantify our communication robot enterprises as an NEC business, while teaming up with a range of partners, based on this knowledge and know-how. We would also like to see PaPeRo leave its mark on the world, just as the world changed with the advent of PCs and the Internet. PaPeRo is capable of more than mere communication, as it can change people's lives. With PaPeRo's ability to facilitate communication, we hope to contribute to a society that is kind and friendly to both the general public and those who are considered disadvantaged.
--Tell us about your personal life.
Ishiguro: My hobbies? Back when I was a student I was on the track team, but now I go to the pool at my gym once a week. I swim for about an hour, both to relieve stress and stay in shape. I like how getting in the water refreshes me both physically and mentally. My kid says my hobby is making robots. Since we announced the PaPeRo petit, I've taken one home every once in a while. It can sometimes be enlightening to hear the up-front reactions and frank opinions of my wife and child, who don't have IT knowledge or any bias. When I take PaPeRo petit home and see my kid completely immersed in playing with it, I feel a little relieved.