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Business Trends

Chatty multilingual robot assists guests at hotels in Japan

AI-infused 'Unibo' set to guide foreign tourists as 2020 Tokyo Olympics nears

Unibo could next find a home in Japan's health care sector as a conversation partner for the elderly.

A little robot is being groomed to help with front desk duties at hotels in Japan as the country gears up to host a surge in visitors for the Tokyo 2020 Olympics.

Christened "Unibo," the multilingual robot is now being tested at a number of hotels. Passing in front of Unibo with its 7-inch LCD display triggers a greeting, while facial recognition allows it to mimic the expressions of guests with whom it is conversing.

Originally unveiled by Tokyo startup Unirobot as a small communications robot, Unibo carved out a niche in the hospitality sector thanks to Almex, a unit of Japanese communications company Usen-Next Holdings that mainly makes automated payment systems.

The robot has found a home at tour operator H.I.S's Henn-na Hotels, where it has been a hit since being introduced in April.

Unibo is equipped with Microsoft voice recognition technology and can converse in English and Chinese, offering loads of touristy advice. For example, asking the whereabouts of the nearest convenience store prompts Unibo to display the store location along with a QR code.

Artificial intelligence developed jointly by Unirobot and Almex allows the robot to field questions that less capable robots would find challenging, such as "What's the weather going to be like the day after tomorrow?"

Almex hopes Unibo will catch on with other hotels and tourist attractions. The unit costs 198,000 yen ($1,780), with a monthly charge of 20,000 yen.

Depending on demand, Almex may add other foreign languages.

According to Japanese survey company Yano Research Institute, the country's communications robot market could reach 8.74 billion yen in fiscal 2020. Japan is expected to steadily increase its reliance on robot technology to help serve the influx of foreign visitors in the run-up to the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.

Almex has been an investor in Unirobot since 2015. As Japan's leader in automatic teller machines, the company is leveraging its existing sales channels to market Unibo, aiming to expand beyond the niche Henn-na Hotel into mainstream business hotels.

Hotels that have robots mostly use just one, but Almex would like to see Unibo installed in guest rooms. The company is targeting 500 to 1000 in unit sales for the product's first fiscal year, and is eyeing future demand for the robots as conversation partners in care homes, nursing facilities and hospitals as Japan's population grays.

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