SoftBank Prepares Humanoid Robot Pepper's U.S. Debut, Releases Android SDK

This chatty humanoid is finally coming to America

3 min read
Pepper humanoid robot
Photo: SoftBank Robotics

Pepper is finally coming to America. Japanese telecommunications giant SoftBank said today that its chatty humanoid robot, unveiled with great fanfare by the company’s founder and CEO Masayoshi Son two years ago, is expected to debut in the North American market later this year. SoftBank also announced that a new developer portal is now available to anyone interested in creating applications for the robot. And tomorrow at Google I/O, SoftBank engineers will take the stage, along with Pepper, to introduce a tool that they hope will entice more developers to build apps for the robot: an SDK for the Android mobile operating system.

steve carlin Steve Carlin, VP of marketing and business development for SoftBank Robotics America Photo: SoftBank Robotics

“We’re so excited to see what the development community can bring on to our platform,” Steve Carlin, vice president of marketing and business development for SoftBank Robotics America, told IEEE Spectrum, adding that “ultimately what is going to really power Pepper is the creativity of this community.” He said the company doesn’t have an official launch date or pricing details but wanted to start building momentum for Pepper’s arrival.

Carlin, who was Facebook’s global head of strategy for gaming before joining SoftBank, explained that businesses, not home users, will be the initial focus in the U.S. market. Today, a number of big retailers in Japan and Europe are using Pepper as a robotic helper to assist customers. These companies include SoftBank’s own mobile subsidiary, which has dozens of robots at its Tokyo stores, as well as businesses such as Nestlé, Nissan, and Carrefour. In Japan, Pepper is also available to individuals who want to use it at home. SoftBank said it has sold more than 7,000 units to consumers and companies.

The new developer portal will offer technical documentation on Pepper, which is capable of talking, gesticulating, and moving on wheels. The robot also has an “emotion engine” that allows it to interact with people in a more engaging way. Also available on the portal will be forums for developers to post and answer questions and a variety of tools for download, including SDKs, and a graphical development system called Choregraphe.

pepper robot SoftBank unveiled Pepper in Japan two years ago as a robotic companion and helper. The company plans to introduce it in the U.S. market later this year. Photo: SoftBank Robotics

Developers can already use Python and C++ to build advanced apps for Pepper, but Carlin says the Android SDK is an important addition “to broaden the audience that we can bring on to the platform.” At Google I/O, Laurent Lec from SoftBank Robotics and Junichi Monma from Google will present the Android SDK’s main features and explain some of the differences between coding for a humanoid and coding for a smartphone.

In its original configuration, Pepper used an Intel-based computer and ran Naoqi, a Linux-based operating system developed by French robotics company Aldebaran, now part of SoftBank Robotics. (Naoqi was originally developed for Nao, Aldebaran’s smaller humanoid.) SoftBank said in a statement that it has “upgraded Pepper to a Google-certified Android OS and released APIs to enhance the developer experience.” Carlin explained that the “Android SDK is a layer on top of the Naoqi operating system.”

Asked how developers would be able to debug and test their apps without an actual robot, Carlin said they could use Choregraphe to test their creations on a virtual Pepper. The software can simulate not only the robot’s movements but also behaviors that involve speech and the “emotion engine.” He explained that before making the robot available on the market, SoftBank wants to make sure that it has the right infrastructure to sell and support Pepper. That’s what Carlin and his team are setting up now.

The company is currently planning to expand its existing Boston facility as well as hire 30 to 40 people for its newly opened San Francisco office. “We’re really excited about what robotics can bring [to people’s lives],” Carlin said, “and it’s only going to get better from here.”

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Robot with threads near a fallen branch

RoMan, the Army Research Laboratory's robotic manipulator, considers the best way to grasp and move a tree branch at the Adelphi Laboratory Center, in Maryland.

Evan Ackerman
LightGreen

This article is part of our special report on AI, “The Great AI Reckoning.

"I should probably not be standing this close," I think to myself, as the robot slowly approaches a large tree branch on the floor in front of me. It's not the size of the branch that makes me nervous—it's that the robot is operating autonomously, and that while I know what it's supposed to do, I'm not entirely sure what it will do. If everything works the way the roboticists at the U.S. Army Research Laboratory (ARL) in Adelphi, Md., expect, the robot will identify the branch, grasp it, and drag it out of the way. These folks know what they're doing, but I've spent enough time around robots that I take a small step backwards anyway.

The robot, named RoMan, for Robotic Manipulator, is about the size of a large lawn mower, with a tracked base that helps it handle most kinds of terrain. At the front, it has a squat torso equipped with cameras and depth sensors, as well as a pair of arms that were harvested from a prototype disaster-response robot originally developed at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory for a DARPA robotics competition. RoMan's job today is roadway clearing, a multistep task that ARL wants the robot to complete as autonomously as possible. Instead of instructing the robot to grasp specific objects in specific ways and move them to specific places, the operators tell RoMan to "go clear a path." It's then up to the robot to make all the decisions necessary to achieve that objective.

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