Talking robot boy keeps lonely elderly people company

June 27, 2012

By NAOKO MURAI/ Staff Writer

OSAKA--"Kabochan" is a hit among the women who attend Day Service Mirai, a day-care facility for the elderly in Toyonaka, Osaka Prefecture.

A 91-year-old woman who comes to the center five days a week enjoys “talking with" the robot, modeled after a 3-year-old boy. She nods affectionately each time the little robot utters a phrase.

“You are so cute,” she said. “I wish I could take you home.”

Yoshio Toza, 64, the day-care center director, said, “A woman with dementia, who used to have a blank expression, has begun to smile and pat Kabochan on his head and nod at his words.”

The interactive boy robot, developed by a major Osaka-based firm for health-related products, is finding a home among many elderly people and elderly care centers.

“Unazuki Kabochan” (nodding Kabochan), the pumpkin doll robot produced by Pip Co., priced at 21,000 yen ($264), has sold about 3,000 units since it was released seven months ago.

The robot is 28 centimeters tall, wears green pumpkin-shaped pants and has a winsome smile and voice.

With five kinds of sensor devices installed, the robot responds to light, sounds and movements. It also speaks 400 phrases.

If the user pats the robot on the head, the robot says, “I like ‘iiko-iiko’ (being patted in an affectionate manner).” When she talks to the robot boy, it asks, “Sorekara, sorekara” (and then, and then …?)

The robot has eight ways to address its owner, including “Obaachan” (Grandma) and “Jiiji” (Grandpa).

The company started selling Kabochan robots through the Internet and nursing product stores across the country in November 2011.

Many customers have purchased the robot as a gift for elderly parents living in remote areas, a company official said.

The creator of the robot is Masatsugu Okazaki, Pip’s business development manager.

When he inspected a group company operating a senior care facility in 2009 as part of research to develop a new business, he was concerned that users and staff members did not look happy.

He thought hard to find ways to make "everybody smile" before he came up with the idea of creating Kabochan, Okazaki, 57, said.

Pip sought the advice of professionals as he had never developed a robot. Every time a prototype was made, Okazaki brought it to care facilities to have it tested by the elderly people. It took three years for the company to produce a satisfactory one.

Pip asked a team of researchers led by Yasuyoshi Watanabe, a professor of brain science at Osaka City University Graduate School of Medicine, to study the functions of Kabochan.

The researchers chose 34 elderly women who lived alone, with an average age of 73, and divided them into groups of 18 and 16. The 18-member group was asked to live with Kabochan, while members of the other group were given dolls with a similar look to Kabochan but without the talking functions. Members of both groups were asked to live with the dolls for two months.

The women's cognitive skills, such as memory and judgment, were tested after the experiment had ended.

The study found improvement in those skills among women who lived with the “real” Kabochan.

“The robot could help prevent dementia,” said Masaaki Tanaka, a lecturer at the graduate school and member of the team.

By NAOKO MURAI/ Staff Writer
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A woman at a day-care center in Toyonaka, Osaka Prefecture, smiles as she talks with “Kabochan” robots. (Naoko Murai)

A woman at a day-care center in Toyonaka, Osaka Prefecture, smiles as she talks with “Kabochan” robots. (Naoko Murai)

  • A woman at a day-care center in Toyonaka, Osaka Prefecture, smiles as she talks with “Kabochan” robots. (Naoko Murai)

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