Alexa, the voice inside your Amazon Echo or Dot, is very helpful and always accommodating. So are Siri, Cortana, and the various other artificially intelligent assistants available today. But none can seemingly compare with the experience provided by Azuma Hikari, — her name, appropriately, means “light” — the holographic character who lives inside the Gatebox, Japan’s sort-of-but-not-really answer to the Amazon Echo.
Falling in love with an intelligent computer operating system may become a thing of the present with the new Gatebox virtual home robot. The introductory video demonstrates how Gatebox works:
Hikari’s holographic projection resides in a 50cm glass tube and is described by Gatebox as a “comforting character that is great for those living alone.” Dressed in a miniskirt and knee high socks, Hikari’s target market appears to be lonely Japanese men.
Young adults in Japan are increasingly shunning romantic relationships resulting in plunging birth rates and a declining population. This has reached the point that Japanese media has even come up with a name for it: sekkusu shinai shokogun—celibacy syndrome.
Hikari, the holographic companion that allows its owner to “enjoy a life with someone while still retaining your freedom.” is an effort to fill this intimacy void and of course, earn some cash for the makers. Azuma Hikari, developed by Gatebox, offers similar services to virtual assistants developed by Amazon, Apple and Microsoft, but comes in a much more anthropomorphic form.
Interaction is done through voice chat in person, with a camera mounted at the top of the tube ensuring Azuma is always able to look at the person she’s conversing with. When away from home, an iOS or Android Gatebox app can be used to continue chatting with Azuma, or to get her to do things in time for your return.
The result is a fully interactive virtual girl, who at her most basic can control your smart home equipment. The sensors mean she can recognize your face and your voice, and is designed to be a companion who can wake you up in the morning, fill you in on your day’s activities, remind you of things to remember, and even welcome you back when you return home from work. There’s Bluetooth and a permanent connection to the internet, and the Gatebox can be linked up to a TV using an HDMI connection.
Japanese is currently the only language supported by the robot, but more than likely an English-speaking version will be in the works for the U.S. While the Gatebox robot can be purchased for around $2,930 to ship to the U.S., the product won’t ship out until December 2017. A US pre-order page is available.
From reading her own personal Gatebox website, we know that Azuma is 20 years old, and she hopes she can “help Master.” The splash page shows Azuma showing off her wedding ring, while an image toward the bottom of the page shows her saying “Master Now Wanted,” as if the user-character relationship wasn’t palpable enough. It’s easy to view this as creepy, however, an increasing number of people live alone, and if the Gatebox offers some companionship and help around the home, it could prove both useful and a valuable point of interaction for people who are otherwise secluded.
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