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Sharp offers robotic rent-a-guide for Japan tourists

Electronics maker embraces outside partners in unfamiliar field

RoBoHoN, Sharp's robotic smartphone, will be available for tourists to rent in Tokyo's Haneda Airport next month.

OSAKA -- Sharp will target foreign visitors to Japan as the electronics maker offers its talking, dancing Robohon humanoid robot smartphones for rental via a rare collaboration with partners outside its business comfort zone.

Railway operator Keikyu will rent out the robot phones at Tokyo's Haneda Airport beginning April 25, Sharp said Wednesday. Fees will start at 1,500 yen ($13) before tax for 24 hours. To connect the robot to the internet, users will need a separate mobile Wi-Fi router, also available for rent.

Sharp and Keikyu will provide around 20 units to start, and they predict around 800 rentals yearly.

Robohon can speak with users in Chinese and English. Travelers can snap pictures with the internal camera, plus take advantage of the hospitality features to get information about certain locations, including roughly 30 spots in areas such as the Asakusa and Shibuya neighborhoods of Tokyo.

The device can serve as a virtual tour guide. In one promotional video, a user in Asakusa asks a suddenly excited Robohon, "What's up?" The robot responds that rickshaw rides are available nearby.

Four companies play a part in the rental venture. Sharp will sell the Robohon units to Keikyu, which will operate the rental service and promote it by selling merchandise. Tokyo company Vision, which rents Wi-Fi routers to foreign visitors in travel hubs, will be involved in operations. Tokyo-based software developer Fubright Communications, which also worked on SoftBank Group's humanoid robot Pepper, provided Robohon's hospitality programming.

In the past, Sharp would insist on in-house technology for its unique services, as with its Zaurus line of personal digital assistants, which blazed the trail in Japan for that genre of device. But this time is different.

"We have no in-house know-how in rental operations and so on," said Miho Kagei, who helped develop Robohon. Sharp intends "to go at this with a little help from the other companies involved," she added -- a noteworthy change for the Osaka-based manufacturer.

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