Korean children, already, have a new companion in Kibot, a monkey-faced bot that can read fairy tales, sing songs, take pictures, and make video calls via a display embedded in its tummy.
Wireless operator KT Telecom started delivering the multitasking monkey today for 485,000 won ($447), plus wireless packages that can be purchased in 12- or 14-month installments.
"It's really cute," said my 9-year-old friend Stella, a co-worker's daughter who visited CNET's offices today. "I would get one if it was in blue." (No luck; for now, it only comes in pink and gray).
Kibot (short for "kid's robot") isn't just for kids, however. Parents can also remotely control the 8-inch-tall wheeled robot via mobile phone and, using Wi-Fi, monitor their children (a feature that made Stella a tad apprehensive).
"If I was sleeping, it wouldn't be that comfortable if I knew someone was watching me," she said. "It would be freaky."
Big brother (or father) concerns aside, Stella thinks the robot playmate--which is aimed at kids younger than she is, 3 to 7--would be a hoot to have around.
She was especially excited by the video chat function, which lets kids make calls via the 1.3-megapixel front-facing camera simply by touching an RFID card bearing the picture of a familiar face (Mom, Dad, Grandma, Grandpa, and so on) to the device.
Kibot, which runs on a rechargeable battery and is manufactured by iRiver, has plenty of other tricks up its sensor-enabled sleeves, too.
It responds to gestures, like pats, by turning and pleasantly saying, "It feels good." When it encounters an obstacle, it can change direction to avoid it. It can take pictures and record and play back customized voices. It even serves as a language tutor for Korean and English. About the only things it doesn't do, seemingly, are scratch its head and swing from branch to branch.
The Kibot home page (in Korean) offers about 300 children's songs, fairy tales, and animations. Upon purchasing Kibot, buyers automatically get 55 pieces of content; they can then select and download 10 additional pieces of media free of charge each month.
Robots and kids are not a new combination, of course. Telepresence robots have, and bots have and been used to social skills and with motor deficits.
While KT Telecom is primarily touting Kibot as an entertainment and communications hub and not a therapeutic device, it's also promoting it as a socialization tool.
"Before going to bed, my child puts Kibot by his bedside, and looks at it, and then falls asleep," said a mother of a 4-year-old boy. "Actually, he used not to fall asleep without me beside him. Nowadays, strangely enough, he sleeps alone well."