SoftBank joins forces with startup to launch an Echo-like smart speaker

Japanese telecom giant SoftBank is gearing up to launch a smart speaker by the end of this year.

The news comes at the start of a week when Apple is anticipated to unveil a similar device. Such a move would also follow in the footsteps of Amazon with its range of voice-controlled Echo speakers, and Google with its Home device that went on sale toward the end of last year.

SoftBank isn’t creating its speaker from scratch, according to mainstream media outlet Nikkei, which broke the news on Sunday. Instead, it’s partnering with Osaka-based startup Plengoer Robotics, which recently secured $81,000 of Kickstarter backing for its Plen Cube smart speaker, described by its creator as a “portable personal assistant robot.”

SoftBank will provide the Plen Cube with enhanced “natural language processing and voice synthesis technologies,” according to Nikkei.

The internet-connected Plen Cube landed on Kickstarter in February, 2017 and took just a couple of days to reach its $50,000 funding goal. The diminutive device wants to be your digital hub in the home, so you could use it to control things such as room lights, thermostat, TV, and music selection.

But, like the offerings from Amazon and Google, that’s not all it does. If you need some information, call its name and it will search the web and shoot right back with an answer. A display on the top shows the time, your calendar, the status of any connected devices, the weather, music cover art, and more.

While many of the features may be similar to rival devices, the Plen Cube has two advantages over its major competitors. One is its portability, with the cube just three inches long on each side. The other is its built-in HD camera, which features face and motion tracking, video stabilization, and 360-degree rotation. You can use if for live-streams and take panoramic images with it, too, and of course you can operate it via your voice or gestures. The promo video shows it attached to the front of a skateboard, so it works as an action camera, as well, though we’re not sure how robust it is compared to, say, a GoPro.

A neat design touch is how the top half of the Plen Cube elevates slightly and moves around when it is active, giving the user a more personal experience when interacting with the device. The motorized mechanism also allows it to track the subject in a video.

With such a small device, we’re particularly curious about the speaker’s sound quality, something Apple has reportedly focused heavily on with its rumored Siri-enabled smart device.

Plengoer’s offering will be able to respond to commands in not only English, but also Japanese, Chinese, and Korean, with initial launch locations expected to include North America, Japan, Singapore, and South Korea. The tiny robot will start shipping by the end of this year, and according to its Kickstarter page will retail for $450.