A curious creature -- a cute, little humanoid robot called Sanbot -- rolled into Berlin this week for the IFA 2016 trade show.
Sanbot is among a breed of robots with kindly faces, personable, sometimes quirky demeanors, and a fundamental goal of meeting a long list of human needs. Some are destined for the home, others for public places such as museums, shops, hospitals and schools. But all are designed to please.
Travelers at the Shenzhen airport in China may have already encountered a Sanbot. For several months, a team of them has been stationed there to provide passengers with flight information. This week marks its first time in Europe, though. The robot, which stands just under a meter (about 3 feet) tall, is hoping to make a good impression.
Made by Chinese tech company Qihan, which has its roots in home surveillance technology, Sanbot allows developers and companies to use its publicly available programming tool to create new roles for it in the service industry. Qihan has already shipped 30,000 Sanbot robots since it launched in China in the first half of 2016. By year's end and after a European launch, the company said it hopes this figure jumps to 80,000 units.
Aesthetically Sanbot is a chunky little droid with a touchscreen running a Linux-based system perched below its head, from which long-lashed digital eyes blink. With arms like dolphin flippers that swing back and forth when she dances, the robot has plenty of charm.
With sensors all around its head and on its arms, Sanbot responds with cheeky quips whenever you touch it. The robot has a projector on board, as well as three cameras: one for security, one for video calls and a 3D camera that equips it with spatial awareness and also works similarly to a Kinect module, in that it allows people to play games with the robot. Sanbot can recognize faces and voices and knows when it's time to plug itself in for a battery recharge.
As already mentioned, Sanbot is not unique. It has rivals such as the equally cute Pepper made by Softbank in Japan, and Asus' Zenbo. Ryan Wu, vice general manager of international operations at Qihan, couldn't give a specific response when asked what sets Sanbot apart from its distant cousins. But these are early days for service robots, and there is still plenty of room for numerous players in the market.
If you're really taken with Sanbot, you will eventually have the chance to install one in your home. Wu said he hopes the publicly available programming tool will encourage people to develop household-specific applications for the droid. There's no set date for its arrival on the consumer market, but Wu said he wants the price to be competitive. This doesn't mean buying a personal robot is going to be cheap. An initial price tag is set at $6,000.