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Sony's toddler robot makes strides

Humanoid robot Qrio, which can dance and chat with people, will serve as a guinea pig for new technology testing before its debut, according to Sony's CEO.

SANTA CLARA, Calif.--It dances. It can hold a conversation. And in about a year, humanoid robot Qrio will be knocking on doors, if Sony's plans fall into place.

Nobuyuki Idei, CEO of Sony, gave the first North American demonstration of Qrio on Saturday as part of a speech he delivered to the Japan Society of Northern California. He also looked beyond gadgetry to the broader context of Japan's changing economic and cultural status.

Qrio--a toddler-sized machine in an aluminum sleeper and a space helmet--can navigate an obstacle course, right itself after a fall, sense heat and surfaces, recognize people through their voice or face, and respond with gestures or words to questions, according to Sony.

At the end of Idei's speech, the robot executed with fair fluidly what resembled an aerobics routine, and answered some questions.

"I love California. It is the same voltage as in Japan," Qrio said. "I just hope there are no blackouts during my stay."

A Sony representative said the company may release the robot commercially in about a year. But Idei also asserted that the robot will serve as a vehicle for testing new technologies across Sony's product line.

"We will accelerate hardware development through Qrio," he said.

Sony's Qrio robot The robot's development comes as Japan's economy is changing. Exports of manufactured goods--a longtime mainstay--have only grown by 10 percent in the past few years. By contrast, the world is gobbling up Japanese comic books, TV shows such as the "Iron Chef" cook-off series, pop music and fashion design. In addition, Hayao Miyazaki's "Spirited Away," a fantasy feature for children, won the Academy Award for the best animated film earlier this year, Idei noted.

"Japan is moving from a corporate manufacturing society to a cultural society," he said. "Japan has far greater cultural influence now than in the '80s."

The island nation is also showing other signs of recovery. Some of its industrial giants, including Nissan, are reporting larger profits.

"The Japanese economy seems to be finally coming out of the big tunnel of recession after 12 years," he said.

Idei pointed to other trends as well. For instance, broadband in homes and on mobile phones has also become fairly widespread. In March 2000, broadband was almost nonexistent in Japan, he said. Now, about 12 million homes have high-speed connections. More than 30 percent of Japanese cell phones have a camera, and several sources in the chip industry have said nearly every cell phone shipped to Japan in 2004 will have a camera.

Politically, the country continues to make changes as well. Although Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi has not been able to push through many of his reforms, upcoming national elections will likely help solidify the notion of a two-party system. For the past 50 years, Japanese politics have been dominated by the Liberal Democratic Party, a situation some say has contributed to economic stagnation.

"The outcome will be close, especially in cities," Idei said. "Japan will come to be represented by two dominant parties with real competition between them. This will help Japan become a more open country."

Danger, Will Robinson
Qrio, which stands for quest plus curiosity--and also calls to mind the word "curio"--extends the capability of Aibo, the pet robot Sony released a few years ago. The demonstration also drew hearty applause from the audience at the Santa Clara Marriott, which included, among others, filmmaker George Lucas, PalmSource CEO David Nagel, several politicians and bankers, and Sun Microsystems founder Scott McNealy. ("I don't think I have been this dressed up on a Saturday since I got married," noted a necktie-wearing McNealy, who introduced Idei.)

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Still, personal robots so far have been a tough sell. Sony has sold approximately 130,000 Aibos, according to the company.

Pricing for Qrio was not revealed, and Sony has yet to commit to a firm commercial release. Nonetheless, the company provided a number of technical details. Qrio is powered by a processor from MIPS, has 64MB of memory and runs on the Aperios operating system--a homegrown Sony operating system that has yet to gain widespread acceptance. It also comes equipped with microphones and cameras.