When SoftBank Group Corp’s CEO Masayoshi Son unveiled the wide-eyed android Pepper in 2014, he painted a vision, once confined to science fiction, of a new era of personal robots in which his company would be the industry leader.
The company’s expectations of demand for Pepper, proved overly optimistic, two sources familiar with the matter said. Seven years later, Pepper is clinging to life, with production shuttered and units cobbled together with out-of-date components. SoftBank will end sales of new Pepper units in 2023, according to the minutes of an internal meeting held in Paris in late May. The management told the staffs that the sales of refurbished units will continue after this point.
The company disputed the meeting minutes, and Kazutaka Hasumi, chief marketing officer of SoftBank Robotics, told that the company is committed to ensuring Pepper survives in some form, perhaps with a new design. He added that in five years’ time, pepper will be in sales. The humanoid was custom designed for SoftBank by Aldebaran, a French robotics start-up it acquired in 2012. Son hoped Pepper would transform robots from a factory tool into an everyday companion. But Pepper’s appeal was limited by its basic functionality. It can make rudimentary conversation, engage in simple interactions through its chest-mounted tablet and sing while gesturing.
Morten Paulsen, head of Japan research at CLSA that pepper wasn’t upgraded to take on real tasks. There was very little Pepper could do that you can’t do with an iPad. Retailing for 198,000 yen ($1,800) plus a 14,800-yen monthly fee, Pepper was out of reach for most households, and SoftBank was quickly forced to focus on businesses. Poor relations between Tokyo and Paris hurt Pepper’s development. SoftBank propped up Pepper’s sales in the early days. 27,000 units were eventually produced. Now, sales of Pepper have slumped to less than 100 units in some months. Production at a Foxconn factory in China was stopped last year.
SoftBank has fewer than 2,000 Pepper units left. The heavy batteries that power the robot are decaying and the chest-mounted tablets run on an out-of-date Android operating system without the latest security updates. SoftBank Robotics embarked on a global restructuring. SoftBank has struck sales deals with partners such as Iris Ohyama in Japan and RobotLAB in the U.S. There is a niche market for selling Pepper to corporate clients and in education, Elad Inbar, CEO of RobotLAB, said in an interview. He added that their job in this ecosystem is to show that there is market demand.