You and I, Robot

Yukai Engineering Inc. IP

Website: Yukai Engineering Inc. external link
Category: Machinery

Yukai Engineering is making robots to help family members communicate with each other lovingly and creatively

Increasingly in modern society parents are working outside the home, and some find themselves putting in long hours away from their children. Smartphones and tablets are convenient but many parents are reluctant to put such devices in the hands of small children. Yukai Engineering Inc.’s robot BOCCO allows parents to communicate with their children, simply and safely.

Over the years, we have gotten used to the ideas of robots helping us clean up around the house and do simple tasks, but using robots to talk to each other is a stretch of our imaginations. Shunsuke Aoki and his colleagues at Tokyo-based Yukai Engineering are hoping to change that. “We want robots to facilitate human communication," he says.

Yukai Engineering Inc. Founder and CEO, Shunsuke Aoki

Yukai Engineering's necomimi is one of the company's more iconic products

Close Collaboration in Robot Development

As founder and current CEO, Aoki took his company from a weekend hobby he started in 2007 to an innovative organization of 14 employees. Compared to larger robotics companies with more management layers, Aoki views Yukai Engineering’s lean size as a significant plus. “This enables us to have close collaboration between engineers and designers in the development process. There really are few teams like this in the field of communication robots.”

This close collaboration has already helped the nine-year-old startup release a variety of notable products. TeamLabHanger is a next-generation store clothing hanger that allows a promotional video or advertisement to be shown on a digital display when picked up by a prospective customer. Yukai Engineering also gained Internet notoriety in April 2012 by developing the mechanical technology for necomimi (literally, “cat ears”), a headset that reads its user’s brainwaves and expresses their emotions through motorized ear movements.

Meet BOCCO, a Robot Messenger

However, Yukai Engineering has come closest to their stated goal of “using robotics to make our daily lives more fun and fulfilling” with a small, unassuming table-top robot called BOCCO, which Aoki describes as “a messenger for kids and elderly people who don’t use smartphones.” As the parent of a small child himself, Aoki understands the dilemma working parents face over wanting to stay in touch with their children while at work, yet feeling reluctant to give them smartphones.

The recipient of a Good Design Award in 2015, BOCCO is connected to the Internet and works as an interface for communication. A parent outside the house can text or record a voice message through an app on their smartphone and BOCCO – eyes glowing and head lifted in eagerness – will play it back to their child at home. Conversely, the child (or elderly person) at home can speak into BOCCO, and he’ll send a message to other family members’ smartphones. BOCCO is protected under two patents: one for a lock sensor and one for the robot’s artificial intelligence system, which can connect to sensors or manage other devices in the home to send notifications. Aoki believes this feature will be even more useful as the Internet of Things expands in coming years.

BOCCO can record and receive voice messages for friends and family

To produce BOCCO, the company took the unusual step (for Japan) of crowd funding on the website Kickstarter. "We had about 200 pre-orders, approximately half of which each came from the US and Japan, respectively," Aoki says. This has prompted Yukai Engineering to expand to overseas markets, and it is currently attending trade shows like CES (Consumer Electronics Show) and seeking foreign distributors. Ultimately, the company says, “we want to establish a world in which robots are able to understand humans on a deep level and support our activities.”

Based on interview in February 2016