TOKYO -- KDDI has staked a claim on a market expected to quickly grow in the coming years; it has invested in U.S. robot startup Jibo.
KDDI on Thursday announced a capital tie-up with the Boston, Massachusetts-based company that has developed its namesake robot companion.
Jibo, like others of its species, is wirelessly connected to the Internet. It takes part in conversations and dishes out information.
The wireless carriers are hoping intelligent family robots become new profit drivers now that their main business -- selling voice and data services to smartphone users -- has reached its saturation point.
Their bets on robots could hasten the popularity of cyborg assistants.
Jibo was founded in 2012 by Cynthia Breazeal -- an associate professor at MIT and a leader of the Personal Robots Group of the MIT Media Lab -- to develop and commercialize family robots.
KDDI has invested in the company through its KDDI Open Innovation Fund. It is believed to have put 300 million yen to 400 million yen ($2.39 million to $3.18 million) into Jibo for a stake of around 10%, although the company has not revealed how much it invested.
Jibo features a movable circular liquid crystal display touch screen that displays an expressive orb but cannot move around on its own. It is designed to be placed on a desk, table or other flat surface.
Weighing less than 3kg, the counter-top conversationalist has face-recognition capabilities and can detect family members' emotions.
An always-online device that automatically stores data in the cloud, Jibo uses artificial intelligence to learn people's preferences and other behavioral patterns so it can adjust its responses.
It can, for instance, read emails out loud when it detects that a family member is preoccupied with cooking or taking care of something else.
Jibo crowdfunded $3.7 million on indiegogo.com and has already shipped 6,500 prototypes to initial buyer/investors who paid $749.
Major ad agency Dentsu also announced Thursday that it has invested $3 million in Jibo through its venture capital fund.
The investments came less than two months after SoftBank's Pepper robot went on sale in Japan for 198,000 yen.
NTT Docomo and toymaker Takara Tomy, meanwhile, have jointly developed the interactive OHaNAS robot. The intelligent toy can respond to people by analyzing a speaker's intent using a cloud-based language-processing system. It will be launched in October with a suggested retail price of 19,800 yen.
KDDI decided to invest in the Jibo company after learning that it would roll out Jibo the robot in 2016 with an eye on Asian markets.
These robots offer a variety of services that take advantage of cloud computing. With their ability to interact with people and handle tasks, they can be sold as assistants and companions for the very young and old.
And by offering software development kits, robot makers can encourage outside companies to develop apps and new uses for their robots.
On the handset front, meanwhile, shipments of mobile phones in Japan in fiscal 2014 fell 3.9% to 37.88 million units, according to MM Research Institute. In fact, total shipments have declined for three straight years as the growth in smartphone sales has cooled.
Carriers' income from communications services per handset is also showing signs of leveling off.
KDDI is now predicting that robots will play the core role in the Internet of Things economy, one that will be driven by machine-to-machine communication. The company sees robots controlling appliances by collecting and analyzing data about temperature, humidity and other conditions in a home.
KDDI has also started investing in other Internet of Things startups.
According to one estimate, the domestic market for social robots will overtake that for industrial robots in 2020 and grow to be worth 10 trillion yen in 2035.