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Monday, October 22, 2001
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The cat is out of the bag

A promoter plays with a robotic cat "NeCoRo", developed by Omuron Corporation with artificial intelligence technology, during a press preview in Tokyo.
A promoter plays with a robotic cat "NeCoRo", developed by Omuron Corporation with artificial intelligence technology, during a press preview in Tokyo.

JAPAN'S biggest toymaker pioneered the world’s first virtual pet, the Tamagotchi, and the nation’s most famous electronics maker rolled out the number-one robot dog, Aibo.

Now one of its biggest makers of automated factory systems, Omron Corp, has weighed in with a robot cat: NeCoRo.

Like most household cats, it doesn’t respond to commands or perform tricks. Nor can it walk, but Omron officials said that it did what was most important - purring contentedly when stroked, and otherwise giving cuddly emotional feedback to its owner with feline sounds and movements.

"Individual contact was our priority," Toshihiro Tashima, head of Omron’s e-pet project, said at the robot cat’s coming-out party on Tuesday.

 


Only 5,000 of the acrylic-furred felines will be up for sale, and only in Japan, with a retail list price of 185,000 yen ($1,530) each.

That compares with 98,000 yen for the latest version of Sony Corp’s Aibo pets, which can recognise 75 simple words, take photos and mimic human intonation.

When it debuted in 1999, a limited offer of 3,000 Aibos sold out over the Internet in Japan in less than 20 minutes, commanding 250,000 yen a piece.

For Japan’s mechanical cat-lovers, NeCoRo, whose name derives from the Japanese for cat, will be available at select Takashimaya Co department stores or over the Internet at (http//:www.necoro.com).

The robot pet has tactile sensors behind and beneath its ears and on its back, where cats are particularly sensitive, as well as audio and visual sensors enabling it to recognise loud noises, sudden movements or the calling of its name.

Its ‘vocabulary’ includes 48 different cat noises. It can also perk up its ears, squint its eyes, tilt its head or stretch its legs to express such feelings as surprise or fatigue.

NeCoRo’s most difficult achievement, Tashima said, was the fake-fur skin that expanded and contracted with its various body movements and facial expressions.

And like Bandai Co Ltd’s hit Tamagotchi - a small, egg-shaped toy displaying a virtual bird that requires virtual care and feeding - NeCoRo will develop personality traits based on how it is treated by its owner.

"If you hold it a lot, it’ll develop a gentle personality, but if you don’t play with it much, it’ll ignore you," Tashima said.

Omron, known for sensor technology used in products from factory tools to automatic tellers, also hoped the artificial intelligence and other technologies tested in NeCoRo would find applications in more practical items, such as user-friendly vending machines for train tickets.

"As machines become a bit smarter, they’ll be easier to use," Tashima said.

Omron executives also acknowledged that NeCoRo had room for improvement, although they disclosed no concrete plans for future generations. "We’ll decide on our next step depending on how the market reacts to this," Tashima said.

— Reuters

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