SoftBank Uses ‘Gundam’ Style for Android-Like Robot System

Jun 18, 2014 2:14 am ET

(Updates with closing share price in sixth paragraph.)

June 18 (Bloomberg) -- Billionaire Masayoshi Son wants to create Android for robots.

A unit of Son’s SoftBank Corp. has unveiled an operating system that would control robots in the same way Google Inc.’s software runs smartphones and tablets. The platform called V- Sido OS can be customized for different types of robots used in home health care, construction and entertainment, Wataru Yoshizaki, the chief developer at Asratec Corp., said in an interview yesterday.

Japan wants to double the market size of domestic robot production to 2.41 trillion yen ($24 billion) by 2020, according to an economic plan released this week. SoftBank recently unveiled a 1.2-meter (4-foot) tall humanoid robot named Pepper that tries to read facial expressions, joining Honda Motor Co.’s soccer-playing Asimo and Panasonic Corp.’s medicine-delivering Hospi-R machines.

“More and more companies are building robots,” Yoshizaki said. “Our platform is just software, but by making adjustments it can be adopted for many purposes.”

SoftBank set up the unit Asratec in July 2013 and injected 160 million yen into it, according to Asratec’s website. Japanese electronics component makers Nidec Corp. and Futaba Corp., as well as Sanrio Co.’s robot unit, are using V-Sido OS, according to a June 11 statement from Asratec.

SoftBank rose 1.7 percent to 7,610 yen at the close in Tokyo trading, paring its decline this year to 17 percent. The benchmark Topix index added 0.9 percent.

China, U.S.

The machines can be controlled by hand signals or a smartphone application, Yoshizaki, 28, said.

The unit aims to generate revenue through royalties from selling the operating system. Yoshizaki declined to give sales forecasts, saying the platform would be customized based on its usage, and profit may vary based on the number of licenses sold.

The robot industry is in the early stages of development, and it’s important to encourage companies in different industries to explore using robots, he said.

“China is a market that is attracting a lot of attention because of their development of industrial robots,” Yoshizaki said at the company’s headquarters in Tokyo. “In terms of technological progress, America is likely to develop both great software and hardware. We want to be actively engaged in both these markets.”

The idea of building an operating system for robots first came to Yoshizaki when he was a child watching the Japanese animation series “Mobile Suit Gundam,” in which pilots control movements of robots with levers and fight enemies in outer space.

‘Astro Boy’

About two decades later, Yoshizaki received 5.5 million yen in funding from the Information Technology Promotion Agency, an affiliate of Japan’s Technology Ministry, to develop software enabling robot movements.

Son said in 2010 his vision was to create a society that coexists with intelligent robots. The SoftBank chairman has said Pepper is a result of his time spent watching the TV show “Astro Boy,” an animated 1960s series based on a character who couldn’t experience emotions.

Pepper will be equipped with a laser sensor, 12 hours of battery life and will cost 198,000 yen ($1,930), can also make jokes and dance, according to SoftBank. The machine is on display at some of SoftBank’s Tokyo-area shops and will be available to consumers in Japan starting in February.

Exoskeleton Suits

Pepper, developed by SoftBank subsidiary Aldebaran Robotics SA, isn’t using Asratec’s platform, Yoshizaki said. The two companies may collaborate in the future.

Other Japanese companies are developing robotic technologies that can save labor and help the elderly care for themselves amid an aging population and concern over rising health costs. People older than 65 will make up 40 percent of Japan’s population by 2060.

Panasonic’s machines have been used in hospitals to deliver medicine and laboratory samples.

Cyberdyne Inc., the maker of exoskeleton suits that help in rehabilitation, has more than doubled since its Tokyo trading debut. The Ibaraki Prefecture-based company’s suits can be used as an aid for paraplegics.

“Whether robots are useful or not, or how they will be useful, is still at a trial stage,” Yoshizaki said. “It is very important that different manufacturers work to expand the market.”