When Siri is asked whether she has a boyfriend, the iPhone’s digital assistant is usually quick to deflect the question with a quip about drones always trying to pick her up.
For Minori Takechi, founder of Vinclu, that’s a missed opportunity.
Takechi is the creator of Hikari Azuma, a miniskirt-wearing avatar. She can hold a basic conversation and wake you up in the morning by turning on the lights. Hikari will message you at work and greet you when you return home. She’ll also set you back about US$2 700 (R36 000).
While Amazon.com and Google are barrelling ahead with efforts to get voice-operated speaker assistants into consumers’ homes, Takechi says these products are too focused on delivering utility. Instead, his Tokyo-based start-up is betting that people will want to forge an emotional relationship with a digital assistant.
“My vision is a world where people can share their daily lives with their favourite fictional characters,” Takechi, 29, said. “We live in a time when all kinds of robots start making their way into our homes. But much of what you see now is inorganic and mechanical and I doubt people will want to communicate with something like that.”
Hikari lives in a coffee maker-sized glass cylinder called Gatebox, as a hologram-like projection on a screen. She doesn’t mind flirting. Say that you like her and Hikari will chirp back with, “Today, tomorrow and the day after.”
In its current form, Gatebox’s appeal may be limited to Japan, which has earned a (somewhat overhyped) reputation for being a place where unmarried men would rather develop a relationship with a virtual girlfriend. The good news is that the company plans to offer a variety of avatars, which could be anything from cartoon characters to sports heroes.
Vinclu isn’t the only company betting that emotion will have to be a key ingredient for a robotic or AI companion. Groove X, another Japanese start-up, is working on a robot that “touches your heart”.
When Takechi set out to raise money in early 2015, before Amazon’s Echo started to gain traction and Google Home debuted, most investors weren’t keen on backing a hardware project, he said. Still, he was able to raise an initial ¥20m (R2,4m) based on conceptual sketches. One early fan was Taizo Son, the younger brother of SoftBank Group founder Masayoshi Son.
So far, Vinclu has raised about ¥200m from investors including Primal Capital and Incubate Fund. Line, Japan’s biggest instant messaging company, bought a majority stake in the start-up in March as part of its push into AI.
“Combining Gatebox know-how and technology with our own Clova AI platform will allow us to develop a new kind of post-display, post-touch agent capable of making the lives of the users richer and more fun,” said Jun Masuda, Line’s chief strategy and marketing officer. The company is planning to launch its own tabletop speaker called Wave in early summer.
Gatebox is still a long way from offering real companionship, and its repertoire is limited to just a handful of scripted interactions. But Line’s backing will give Takechi access to richer AI capabilities and an ecosystem of services that go far beyond messaging. More than 171m subscribers in Japan, Thailand, Taiwan and Indonesia use Line to read the news, hail taxi rides and find part-time jobs.
Not everyone is sold on the tech industry’s rush toward voice assistants. Although Amazon’s Echo and Apple’s Siri give the impression they can answer anything, in reality that kind of general AI is still years away, according to Benedict Evans, a partner at Andreessen Horowitz. He warned in March that there’s a limit to how many voice commands people can memorise and that some may end up having negative emotional responses to things that seem almost human, but aren’t quite.
Vinclu’s answer to the limitations of voice is kawaii, the Japanese word for cute. Takechi said the company is developing behaviour patterns that will let their characters make mistakes without getting on your nerves. The bet is that when a virtual girlfriend fails to order an Uber, you’re more likely to forgive her than a disembodied voice from a cylinder.
Takechi’s formative experience was in the sub-Saharan nation of Malawi, where he moved at the age of 10 when his mother got a job helping the government fight malaria. Stuck in a town with one traffic light and a school where no one spoke his language, Takechi spent the two years holed up in his room with only Pokemon characters for company. That gave him an understanding of otaku culture and planted the seed for Gatebox, he said.
“The kind of communication we are focusing on isn’t your typical command-answer relationship,” Takechi said. “Kawaii is infallible.” — (c) 2017 Bloomberg LP