Hong Kong-based technology firm set to offer Barbie-like robots by year's end

HK-based firm to market 'smart Barbie' by year's end for less than an iPad

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 09 June, 2015, 2:09am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 09 June, 2015, 8:49am

Picture this: a Barbie-like doll that is no longer just pretty and plastic but winks and smiles at you when you are depressed, and perhaps teaches you English and even gives you health tips.

This isn't a plot for the next sci-fi blockbuster. It is the latest invention from Hong Kong-based Hanson Robotics that is expected to be available this Christmas.

"It's your personal companion … just like your little friend," Jong Lee, CEO of Hanson Robotics, told the South China Morning Post.

Speaking at the recent Pioneers Festival in Vienna, Austria - an annual two-day conference for start-ups, entrepreneurs and investors - Lee said the small personal robots would be the tech firm's new focus following the invention of a robotic head called Han, which resembles a European male, and Eva, which appears to be a half-Asian female. They were presented recently in Beijing by inventor and company founder David Hanson.

The company has made more than 40 robots over the past decade and designed over 12 robotic "heads".

Lee said the small personal robots would be powered by smartphone apps to be developed on the open market. He expected apps would be available for education, health and even a personal secretary resembling Apple's intelligent personal assistant software Siri.

"It's a 'smart Barbie' - it's warm and friendly, a 'Barbie' that can look at you and show care, and look concerned if you are not doing well. It's a relationship-building friend."

Lee said the first shipment of the small robots was expected before Christmas, while the actual name and price were yet to be determined.

"It will be inexpensive," he said. "It's going to be significantly cheaper than an iPad. We want to make sure cost is not a barrier to these products."

Lee said that while some European cities such as Berlin and Vienna had a vibrant start-up scene, Hong Kong remained an ideal base for the company, which relocated from the United States.

Although the dotcom bubble burst in 2000 had scared away many start-ups and potential investors, he still believed Hong Kong was the right "farm" to nurture start-ups.

"Fundamentally, Hong Kong has rich, fertile black soil," he said. "It's still early days for the farm and production of that farm … but step by step we are getting seeds and more and more farms start to yield fruit here."

He said Berlin and London had a long tradition in technology and an ecosystem for start-ups to grow, but the future lay in Asia. Hong Kong's sophisticated and business-friendly infrastructure and easy access to capital had already attracted Western capital and investors from not just China, but Asia as a whole, he said.

Lee expected start-ups with HK$200 million to HK$400 million to emerge in Hong Kong, and young people would be able to make money without relying on real estate or stock market speculation.

Watch: Meet Han and Arthur, robots you may one day meet on a Hong Kong street