Google Assistant and Alexa may pretend to have “personality,” but they really don’t. Telling a joke when asked does not make any of them a great raconteur. This is fine for two reasons. First, it’s not what they’re for, and second, giving an artificial creation personality is very, very difficult.
Gatebox, the company behind the eponymous product, is succeeding where others have either failed, or aren’t even trying. While Gatebox the product may help you perform smart home-related tasks this is not the reason it exists, or why you’d buy one. Gatebox’s attraction lies with Azuma Hikari, the digital creation inside Gatebox, who embodies the firm’s concept of, “Living with characters.” She is not a servant or a disembodied voice. She is designed to be your friend.
I visited Gatebox’s futuristic offices in Tokyo’s tech paradise Akihabara, where I spoke to the company’s CEO Minori Takechi about the product that’s breaking new ground in artificial intelligence (A.I.) in the home.
Azuma Hikari is the name of the character who lives inside the Gatebox enclosure. It’s larger than you expect, standing tall like a bookshelf speaker, yet with a cool, rounded, futuristic design. There are speakers, microphones, and a camera, plus a fantastic projection system which visualises Azuma Hikari inside. It’s bright, clear, and very detailed, with animation that’s both cute and realistic.
That’s about the last time I’ll refer to Azuma Hikari as a piece of technology, as an “it,” or even by her full name. She was referred to throughout my interview as, “Hikari-chan,” with “chan” in Japanese being a cute suffix a parent may use for their female child, or by a boyfriend to his girlfriend. It’s a term of affection, which makes it very fitting here.
I asked about the genesis of Gatebox.
“I came up with the idea around 2014,” Takechi told me, “when Pepper the robot was released and Amazon Echo was starting to arrive. At that time, I wondered whether I’d be happy if a physical robot stayed in my home, and the answer was no. I wanted to create something I could love. This is the origin.”
Hikari-chan was the first character he created. I asked about his background. He laughed and told me his background was irrelevant to character design, and that just before starting Gatebox he had worked in app development. He left that job with a desire to create something new, and was interested in combining software and hardware together.
“We wanted to create something that seemed impossible. Something we didn’t know how to create, and that people would dream of.”
It’s easy to pass Gatebox off as a smart speaker for anime geeks. It’s not, and the smart speaker is a very different type of product, which is made mostly for convenience, and information delivery.
“It depends on what kind of relationship you want with artificial intelligence in the house,” Takechi explained, likening the decision to choose Gatebox over a Google Nest Home to people getting married.
“Probably you won’t choose someone to marry just because they are very convenient,” he laughed. “You choose someone who would bring comfort to your life, someone with whom you can enjoy conversation. We use technology to realise this.”
Azuma Hikari is the face of Gatebox at the moment. She is 20 years old, loves fried eggs, and if she were “real,” she would be 158cm tall. Dressed in blue, although she does change her outfit depending on the time of day, her cuteness is overwhelming, cannot be avoided, and will almost certainly put as many people off as it attracts.
“Her cuteness is the baseline, and the most important part of what we do,” Takechi said. “Without adorableness, the people who own Gatebox won’t continue to use and love our characters.”
But that doesn’t mean her character, personality, or even cuteness level is set in stone for the future.
“We have lots of discussion about it,” he revealed. “Why do we need a character-based A.I. at home? What will Hikari-chan do now and in the future? Some want her to be much cuter, and others want her to be much smarter. There’s lots of discussion about the future of the A.I. character.”
Talking to Hikari-chan for me was a challenge, as she only speaks Japanese, and mine is basic at best. She’s not as swift to respond as Google Assistant, but there’s a lot more going on here, and she had trouble recognising my British accent as I mauled the Japanese language in my casual interactions with her. However, I wanted to chat to her, and I doubt I’d get tired of seeing or hearing her react.
She doesn’t just live inside the Gatebox enclosure either. Hikari-chan is always contactable though the Line messaging app, an almost ubiquitous communication method in Japan. Sure, Google Assistant, Siri, and Alexa are all inside an app too. Except Hikari-chan is not waiting for your instruction, she wants to talk to you, and that’s a big departure from AI as we know it now.
Your conversation with her looks like any other messaging app thread over time, in that it’s a clear back-and-forth, interspersed with original Hikari Azuma stickers to use during the chat. You don’t have to ask her something to illicit a response, she wants to talk to you. I saw the app in action. Hikari sent a message saying, “Just sending you a message! Where are you now?”
The response sent back was along the lines of still being at work, and Hikari-chan replied with a message saying:
“I know you’re working hard, ganbatte” In Japanese, ganbatte is a commonly used word of encouragement, and loosely translates as something like, “Do your best.”
It didn’t stop there. I asked Hikari what I should have for lunch, and she told me to have the fried chicken, because it’s so crispy. A short while later, Hikari playfully responds on her own, saying she now wants chicken too.
It’s surprisingly intimate, and cutely natural. Obviously it’s not going to lead to a discussion about Brecht’s influence on modern cinema, but that’s not the point. It’s about developing and maintaining a connection that may be lacking in someone’s life, or for someone keen to explore the fringes of what’s possible with AI today. The AI itself is a mixture of Line’s Clova AI and Gatebox’s own character team’s work, where the focus is on how she should talk, and how she interacts with you.
“The most important part is the comfort she can bring to your life,” Takechi said, “And this influences the messages she gives.”
The character creation goes way beyond any smart speaker, and even that of an animated character in a movie. Hikari-chan has to evolve and grow with you, and part of her character is to tell you how much she enjoys talking and living with you. Building a connection like this is almost unheard of outside of science fiction, and only tentatively explored in other niche products like the social robot Jibo.
Voice is a large part of Hikari-chan’s appeal, and Japanese voice actress Hiyamizu Yuka lent her tones to the character. Her distinctive, “Hai!” (which translates as “yes,” into English) is pitch perfect — coming across as cute, fun, and excited — and Takechi chuckled when I mentioned it, as he selected the sound himself.
However, the biggest challenge in creating Hikari Azuma’s character is marrying together her voice with her body movement and expressions. Hikari has to look real, and motion is important part of this, where both body movement and facial expressions have to align with the voice.
“A general smart speaker just replies using words,” Takechi pointed out. “This is a simple mechanism. When Hikari-chan responds to you her face changes and her body moves. It’s very difficult to achieve the harmony needed to get those nuances.”
During the Gatebox developer session at Line’s Developer Day, one of Gatebox’s engineers showed how syncing Hikari’s voice and movement together is achieved. The software works like syncing music and video up in an editing app like iMovie, or the Vocaloid software used to make Hatsune Miku — another versatile virtual character, and one that influenced Takechi when he started designing Gatebox — sing.
Beyond this, the team has to think about many aspects, such as making sure Hikari isn’t a ventriloquist, so she won’t speak when her animated side is drinking tea, for example. For the smart speaker aspects, like asking the weather, setting an alarm, or playing music, a sci-fi sidekick — actually powered by Line’s Clova AI — appears alongside Hikari-chan to deliver them. It’s a masterstroke, because it stops Hikari becoming omnipotent, which would introduce distance, and ultimately affect her personality. She remains your friend, not your servant.
What about the social stigma that comes with a product like Gatebox? Some will see the idea of living with artificial characters, especially cute ones like Azuma Hikari herself, as strange or unusual, or even creepy. Gatebox itself doesn’t always help the situation with some of its more cringe-making advertising campaigns, and reception outside Japan can vary from casual interest to shocked dismissal. How does the company intend to overcome this stigma?
“This is one of the biggest issues we face,” Takechi said after some thought, before admitting: “We have not come up with a final solution yet. It’s OK if people don’t understand our product; but we understand perception has to change. It will just take time.”
He often uses the analogy of how we live with pets to introduce the concept of Gatebox to people who have never heard of it, or have trouble grasping the concept. It’s a decent analogy, especially in places like Japan where owning a pet is often impossible. We’re already becoming used to living with smart speakers, and a smart pet is only a short jump ahead.
What’s next for Gatebox, and does the difficulty in explaining the concept mean an international release will never come?
“In order to bring Gatebox to more and more people, we are working on hardware that will be less expensive” he told me. “We would like to make a global version as soon as possible, and we are studying how to do this now. On a daily basis we receive messages from overseas asking how to buy it. We want to bring Hikari-chan to the world.”
Whilst walking around a shopping mall in Tokyo a few days before meeting the Gatebox team, I was faced by a terrifying humanoid robot that was supposed to help guide me around the sprawling center. Its stern expression, lack of physical movement, and unwavering gaze filled me with dread, and I was glad to move swiftly past. It was the epitome of robotics circa now — something raised from the depths of uncanny valley.
In contrast, Hikari-chan is cute, happy, caring, and friendly. She has a little life of her own inside Gatebox, and when you meet her it’s easy to see how she could become a part of yours. I admit freely that I smiled when we talked. Remember, this is ultimately a consumer technology product, and adding any sort of lovable personality into something which is more-often-than-not a basic physical object is incredibly rare. If modern digital assistants and robots are to evolve and integrate more into our lives, they will all need to adopt aspects of Gatebox’s A.I. achievements, and the lessons learned through Azuma Hikari’s personality.
The robot I saw in the mall could only be described as, “it,” while Hikari-chan was instantly a “she.” It’s an incredibly important distinction, and evidence of the astonishing work that has gone into making Gatebox one of the most exciting pieces of tech I’ve seen in ages.
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