Matt LaWell, IndustryWeek
Industryweek 10791 041516sharprobohon1mattlawell

Japan's Robot Love Saves Sharp's $1,800 Dancing Smartphone

April 15, 2016
Designed to be a sort of digital assistant, RoBoHoN can send texts, display photos, handle video conferences, dance (for some reason) and, of course make phone calls. But will it actually catch on?

If there’s one thing you can count on in Japan, it’s the country’s persistent fascination with robots.

That’s probably why Sharp Corp. decided to stick with plans to introduce a 7.5-inch tall walking, talking smartphone called RoBoHoN, even as it’s being rescued by Taiwan’s Foxconn after racking up losses and cutting staff. The Osaka-based company is betting there’s enough interest to sell 5,000 units each month, even with a price tag of 198,000 yen ($1,819).

The tuxedo-clad robot is meant to be used as a digital assistant. It can send texts, handle video conferences and even display images using a head-mounted projector. RoBoHoN will even dance for you. 

Sharp is touting the robot phone as sign that the company’s spirit of innovation is still alive. Last month, Sharp agreed to a deal that will cede control to Taiwan’s Foxconn Technology Group, which has said it will bring more focus to the manufacturer’s business.

“RoBoHoN doesn’t just deliver the fun of a smartphone, it’s a robot phone that responds to people with charm and fun,” said Yoshisuke Hasegawa, a Sharp director. “In terms of developing the business, we’re considering overseas sales.”

With the announcement of pricing and availability from May 26, it looks like RoBoHoN’s dancing days aren’t going to be over anytime soon. And if the gadget proves to be a hit, Sharp will be helped by being under the control of the world’s biggest assembler of electronics devices, including Apple Inc.’s iPhones.

But it might be wise to remember that there’s no shortage of robots produced for Japan’s consumers that failed to become mainstream, most notably AIBO, Sony Corp.’s robotic pet dog. Initially a hit, even with a price tag of $2,500, Sony pulled the plug on the digital pooch in 2006 after selling 150,000 units. Pepper, a humanoid robot backed by SoftBank Group Corp. that went on sale last year, has yet to catch on.

Even if RoBoHoN doesn’t turn out to be the robot everyone was waiting for, it can still serve a useful purpose: The gadget will stay still when you use it to, well, make phone calls.

By Takashi Amano and Pavel Alpeyev

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