I’ve met a lot of interesting people in Japan, and Shunsuke Aoki is among them. He is the CEO of Yukai Engineering, Inc, a hardware/robot development company most known for the BOCCO family robot that we covered during CEATEC Japan, including the subsequent evolutions.
When we last met [prior to CES], I asked him about his company, the Japanese startup scene, funding in Japan, user privacy and how he sees device collaborating in your home.
Could you present yourself and Yukai Engineering?
I am Shun Aoki, Co-founder and CEO of Yukai Engineering. Yukai Engineering is a team of 16 designers and engineers who are passionate about creating robots. It started in 2007 as a weekend robotics project, which turned out to be a corporation in 2011.
We are very focused on Communication Robots and we envision that in the future, every home will have one and we will use it as a user-interface (UI) for smart homes, home appliances, and IoT devices around you.
Today, we have to use many different [smartphone] apps to use IoT devices at home, which means that your eyes are tied up to the phone screen, instead of to your loved ones who are right in front of you.
Yukai’s Bocco has been shipping for some time. Could you give us an update?
We have already shipped 4000 (as of ~Oct 2016) units domestically, and we just started selling on Amazon US. BOCCO was also shown at the J-POP summit in San Francisco.
Also BOCCO has a record button and users can respond to the messages which seemed not mentioned on your article (laughs).
The voice message recorded on BOCCO will be send to the smartphone app both as a voice and text using speech-to-text technology.
From the outside, it seems that IoT is responsible for the rise of the Japanese startup scene, is that true?
I think so. As the giant electronics companies in Japan get weaker, an increasing number of young [employed] engineers are becoming entrepreneurs with a good knowledge of product design and manufacturing. Japan has many electronic and mechanical engineers and it’s getting a lot easier for startups to hire them in the past several years. I expect that there would be a next Nintendo or SONY soon.
Is getting funding harder for hardware startups?
In my experience, yes. Building a physical product [and sell it] is an established kind of business that many companies have been doing for a while, some for hundreds of years*. Startup products must compete for space on retail shelves that are already occupied by big brands products, and this is very hard.
Managing products returns/refunds or providing after-sales support is another challenge for startups. Also, Hardware businesses are much harder to scale when compared to apps or web services, which users can try on their phone [casually] at anytime, anywhere.
*Editor’s Note: Japan is home to some of the oldest businesses on the planet. For instance, the world’s oldest company that has run continuously is Kongō Gumi, a Japanese construction company. It was created in the year 578.
You mentioned that you would like to see more sensors in home. How would that work?
With current and upcoming IoT technologies (Internet of Things), a robot no longer has to contain all the sensors it needs inside its own body.
Robots now can utilize the sensors embedded in our home environment (or work) environment to recognize human behavior, and provide suitable services.
"THE MORE SENSORS, THE MORE ROBOTS CAN UNDERSTAND HUMAN BEHAVIOR"Motion sensors like Kinect can be installed in each room to detect how many people there are, what they are doing, what their health status are like, which can be used to suggest suitable background music, adjust room light dimmer, warns if they forget about taking pills, or even call an ambulance [the health applications are in the context of a healthcare facility].
The more sensors there are and the more robots can understand the context of human behavior, and support people’s daily lives.
With the multiplication of sensors, users are a bit worried about privacy. Should they be?
There would be some privacy issues at the beginning like there was when people started to use Gmail, Facebook or Google Street View. I believe people would get used to new technologies as they understand both convenience and risks.