Former loner makes robots to ease loneliness

Former loner makes robots to ease loneliness
PHOTO: Kentaro Yoshifuji

"It's as if my mother were really at home."

A boy of elementary school age spoke these words while happily conversing with a 20-centimeter-tall robot. Comprised of only an upper body, it behaved pleasantly, nodding and occasionally clapping its hands. It was actually being controlled by the boy's mother from a hospital. While watching her son on her smartphone screen, she moved the robot and engaged in conversation.

The mini robot, named OriHime, is easily controlled from afar using a smartphone or PC.

"This is an alter ego for anyone who can't go where they want to. This is your second body, which others can recognise as you," said Kentaro Yoshifuji, 29, the developer of the robot.

Yoshifuji experienced pangs of loneliness while living as a hikikomori, or recluse, for 3½ years, starting when he was a fifth-grader in elementary school. While at university, he developed a robot that he hoped could help those suffering from loneliness and "convey one's existence to others and offer a shared experience."

The robot is named after princess Orihime from the Japanese folk legend Tanabata, about Orihime and prince Hikoboshi, a young couple separated from each other but able to meet once a year.

Yoshifuji established a company in the hope of making his robot available to a wide range of people, including the elderly and those with intractable diseases. He began leasing it out in July last year, and in March published a book about how and why he developed OriHime.

"Participating in society is essential to relieve loneliness," he said. Yoshifuji now aims to create a new type of robot that can move on its own and easily blend into daily life.

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