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Three years ago a small robot called Kirobo blasted into space, headed for the International Space Station. When it arrived, the 34-cm-tall, Toyota-made android became best buddies with Japanese astronaut Koichi Wakata, accompanying him around the station, engaging in polite conversation, and even showing emotion according to the subject matter.
Following Kirobo's successful space jaunt, the car company decided to back the development of a smaller version of the already small robot, calling it -- rather appropriately -- Kirobo Mini. It unveiled the diminutive droid at the 2015 Tokyo Motor Show.
Toyota announced on Monday that Kirobo Mini will go on sale in Japan next year for 39,800 yen (about $390), though a 300-yen (about $2.95) monthly subscription fee will also be necessary.
Besides the robot itself, you'll also receive a "cradle" that's designed to fit inside a car's cup holder, ensuring that the robot travels in style wherever you take it. Just don't forget it's there when you're drinking a hot coffee.
An ad (above) released by Toyota over the weekend shows Kirobo Mini hanging out with families, couples, the elderly, singletons, and students, with everyone visibly enthralled by its ability to say the right thing at the right time. However, Kirobo Mini's specific functionality, and the extent to which it'll be able to interact with humans, is yet to be revealed.
Designed by Tomotaka Takahashi of the University of Tokyo's Research Center for Advanced Science and Technology (RCAST), Robo Garage of Kyoto University, and Toyota, the original Kirobo was sent to the ISS in 2013 to join Wakata for the first-ever space-based communication experiments between a robot and a human.
"I wish for this robot to function as a mediator between a person and machine, or a person and the Internet, and sometimes even between people," Takahashi said at the time.
In a country with a rapidly aging population and where an increasing number of people are living alone, it's perhaps little surprise that companion robots like Kirobo are garnering increasing attention in Japan.
Japanese mobile giant SoftBank launched Pepper a couple of years ago, marketing it as an "emotional robot" that can dance, sing, and tell jokes, while in June Sony CEO Kazuo Hirai said his company is currently working on a robot that'll be capable of "forming an emotional bond with customers."
And we mustn't forget Sharp's remarkable RoBoHon smartphone. The tiny robot, which bears more than a passing resemblance to Kirobo Mini, also behaves like your personal pal (or more accurately, assistant), reading out your phone messages and alerts, waking you up in the morning, and making and placing calls.