In a time when even basic human interactions are discouraged for safety reasons, there’s an even greater demand for alternate sources of companionship. But if you’re not ready for the responsibilities of a dog or a cat, Panasonic has introduced yet another companion robot that dutifully pays attention to you through bouts of flatulence—just like a real pet.
Nicobo isn’t easy to describe; it’s as if someone flipped a bowl over, gave it some animated eyes, a wagging tail, and then wrapped it in an old sock. It has no ability to loco-mote—it won’t come when you call it—but it’s attached to a moving base so that it can turn from side to side and look up and down. Co-developed with robotics researchers from the Toyohashi University of Technology Michio Oka Laboratory, Nicobo also includes a camera for recognizing faces, multiple directional microphones for recognizing voices and turning to pay attention, touch sensors so it knows when it’s being touched or hugged, and a light sensor so that like a cat it can enjoy a nap in bright sunlight.
Instead of picking up laundry or cleaning your floors, Nicobo is all about providing simple companionship. So when someone pets it, the robot’s tail starts wagging in appreciation. But it can also have days where its mood isn’t so affable, and that’s presumably when it won’t think twice about farting around you.
Nicobo can also talk, but in the beginning, it only speaks a single word (similar to The Guardian of the Galaxy’s Groot’s limited yet expressive vocabulary) but eventually, it mutter full sentences in katakoto—the Japanese word for broken language, or baby talk. You’re never going to have a long conversation with Nicobo, but its crude mutterings will help reinforce the feeling that it’s genuinely attentive and listening to your feelings, even if it can’t do anything about them. Sometimes that’s all a human needs.
Getting your hands on Nicobo is a little complicated. For starters, Panasonic is only planning to initially make 320 units of the little robot, with a price tag of around $360. But it’s handling pre-orders through its own crowdfunding platform with the goal of raising 10,000,000 YEN (about $95,000) before production actually happens. After the first six months, owners are also expected to cough up about $10 a month in order to use what sounds like even Nicobo’s most basic features like smartphone connectivity and software updates. We hate to see companies nickel and dime users like this, but monthly expenses do make Nicobo feel more like an authentic pet.
The other complication is that it looks like all the pre-orders for Nicobo are already claimed at this point—roughly six hours after the crowdfunding campaign launched. There could still be cancellations, and there’s always the chance that if Panasonic finds it has a runaway hit on its hands, it will ramp up production. Until then, particularly if you’re outside Japan, finding a Nicobo may be harder than the challenges of raising a puppy or a kitten.