Did You Meet Pepper?

Earlier this week it was widely reported that Softbank’s friendly-faced almost-humanoid Pepper robot was not long for this world, as the Japanese company’s subsidiary in France that had been responsible for the robotic darling of the last decade was being downsized, and that production had paused. Had it gone the way of Sony’s Aibo robotic puppy or Honda’s crouching-astronaut ASIMO? It seems not, because the company soon rolled back a little and was at pains to communicate that reports of Pepper’s untimely death had been greatly exaggerated. It wasn’t so long ago that Pepper was the face of future home robotics, so has the golden future become a little tarnished? Perhaps it’s time to revisit our plastic friend.

A Product Still Looking For A Function

A Pepper earning an honest crust as a tourist guide at the Heijo Palace museum. Tokumeigakarinoaoshima, CC BY-SA 4.0.
A Pepper earning an honest crust as a tourist guide at the Heijo Palace museum. Tokumeigakarinoaoshima, CC BY-SA 4.0.

Pepper made its debut back in 2014, a diminutive and child-like robot with basic speech recognition and conversation skills, the ability to recognize some facial expressions, and a voice to match those big manga-style eyes. It was a robot built for personal interaction rather than work, as those soft tactile hands are better suited to a handshake than holding a tool. It found its way into Softbank stores as well as a variety of other retail environments, it was also used in experiments to assess whether it could work as a companion robot in medical settings, and it even made an appearance as a cheerleading squad. It didn’t matter that it was found to be riddled with insecurities, it very soon became a favourite with media tech pundits, but it remained at heart a product that was seeking a purpose rather than one ready-made to fit a particular function.

I first encountered a Pepper in 2016, at the UK’s National Museum of Computing. It was simply an exhibit under the watchful eye of a museum volunteer rather than being used to perform a job, and it shared an extremely busy gallery with an exhibit of Acorn classroom computers from the 1980s and early ’90s. It was an odd mix of the unexpected and the frustrating, as it definitely saw me and let me shake its hand but stubbornly refused to engage in conversation. Perhaps it was taking its performance as a human child seriously and being shy, but the overwhelming impression was of something that wasn’t ready for anything more than experimental interaction except via its touch screen. As a striking contrast in 2016 the UK saw the first release of the Amazon Echo, a disembodied voice assistant that might not have had a cute face but which could immediately have meaningful interactions with its owner.

How Can A Humanoid Robot Compete With A Disembodied Voice?

In comparing the Pepper with an Amazon Echo it’s possible that we’ve arrived at the root of the problem. Something that looks cool is all very well, but without immediate functionality, it will never capture the hearts of customers. Alexa brought with it the immense power of Amazon’s cloud computing infrastructure, while Pepper had to make do with whatever it had on board. It didn’t matter to potential customers that a cloud-connected microphone presents a huge privacy issue, for them a much cheaper device the size of a hockey puck would always win the day if it could unfailingly tell them the evening’s TV schedule or remind them about Aunty’s birthday.

Over the next decade we will see the arrival of affordable and compact processing power that can do more of the work for which Amazon currently use the cloud. Maybe Pepper will never fully receive that particular upgrade, but it’s certain that if Softbank don’t do it then somebody else will. Meanwhile there’s a reminder from another French company that being first and being cute in the home assistant market is hardly a guarantee of success, who remembers the Nabaztag?

Header: Tokumeigakarinoaoshima, CC0.

4 thoughts on “Did You Meet Pepper?

  1. I have a Pepper sitting right next to me right now. Same scenario as in the article, in a science museum where (with the help of a staff member) kids can learn a bit more about coding or put into practice what they already know.

    We have Pepper’s predecessor, Nao, as well. I have never really thought of these as consumer products or even as really anything more than a box that moves. Softbank has never really supported much for getting people to learn how to use it or what to do with it. They shut down the community forums a few years back so trying to figure anything out is just impossible.

    I’m not surprised Pepper is going by the wayside, but I am surprised that anyone thought they were marketed to consumers like an Amazon Echo?

  2. I worked a bit for a telepresence robot company that focused on the elderly care, it was quite popular among the care takers. But in the end the company failed to make profit, I think the deployment and government contract negotiations took too long.


    Now, for those who have not used a telepresence robot, the immersion is quite amazing, and when you talk to a teleprecense robot (atleast the one i worked with) the brain managed to abstract away the “bot” part, and it feelt like an actual IRL meeting.

    One reason it was popular was that the elderly rather had a robot at home then letting in 5 new strangers into their home every week. But that might tell you more about the quality of swedish elerly care than about the “robotic elderly care” concept…

    Point is, there are applications, but the whole “AI” part needs to evolve a bit more before it can be accepted. Price will always be an issue, If you are going to pay the same amount as a car will cost you, then you probably expect the same level of “quality of life” improvement to motivate it.

  3. “who remembers the Nabaztag”
    This product was WAAAAYYY ahead of its time. Including the part were it becomes a paperweight after beeing discontinued.
    Fortunately its remains are picked up and regurally updated (HW and SW) (look for TagTagTag)

    There is a kind of pattern with the french innovation : beeing technically ahead of its time, don’t understant the consumer needs, lack of domestic demand/support, fail once any challenger arrise, cut cost by slashing innovation and local production, disapear
    And then blaming taxes and/or “les 35 heures”

    Works for almaost anything, from supersonic plane (concorde) to mobile phones (Alcatel), Launcher (Ariane), online services (minitel), electric cars (Bluecars)

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