Sony's Qrio robot turns science messenger

Sony will lend one of its five Qrio public relations robots to schools in Japan, India and Vietnam to stimulate childrens' curiosity in science and technology, the company said Monday.

In cooperation with the National Federation of UNESCO Associations in Japan (NFUAJ), Sony will initially send the 58-centimeter humanoid robot, accompanied by engineers, to a school in Sendai, Japan, on Sept. 23 and a school in Gumma prefecture, Japan, in mid-December. Overseas, Qrio will go to a school in New Delhi, India at the beginning of October and to Hanoi, Vietnam, in January 2005.

The 7-kilogram robot, which has already been designated Sony's corporate ambassador and often shows up at trade shows singing and dancing and occasionally falling over, has a new role as UNESCO's science messenger. Qrio is being sent to "stimulate the curiosity of children in science," said Mikio Suzuki, NFUAJ vice president, at a Tokyo news conference on Monday.

"The National Federation of UNESCO Associations in Japan's goal since 1947 has been to educate children in elementary, middle and secondary schools in science, to stimulate their dreams, to create a better future...for the environment...for world peace," he said.

UNESCO and Sony have constructed two educational programs, under the name Qrio Science Program, to these ends.

The program consists of a smaller class for elementary, and a bigger class for middle and senior students. The lessons are billed as "hands-on experiences" for children showing them how science and technology are "useful in daily life," using "cutting-edge technology."

Intelligent servo actuators enable Qrio to walk on two feet, dance, climb and descend stairs, not fall over when shoved, and even pick itself up when it takes a tumble. Using twin CCD (charge coupled device) cameras, it can also recognize and identify faces. Equipped with seven microphones and a speaker, Qrio is able to identify voices, talk, sing and understand about 20,000 words. It can also exhibit some limited emotional responses, according to Sony.

Sony calls Qrio, which was formerly called the SDR-4XII (SDR means Sony Dream Robot), a technical prototype toward the development of soccer-playing robots that will challenge humans in a match around 2050. For the moment, however, children aged 5-18 will meet Qrio and use digital cameras and other equipment and make and edit videos under the instruction of Sony representatives and local teachers, according to a Sony spokesman.

"Sony was founded after the (Second World) War as a company founded to be against war," Sony Chairman and CEO Noboyuki Idei said at the press conference.

"More than just selling products, we want to make products that are fun and enjoyable," he said.

Idei said that sending Qrio abroad with NFUAJ was the latest in several international educational and promotional programs that the company has kicked off in recent years in China, Moscow and in India. Sony and NFUAJ are considering extending Qrio's Science Program to other countries and schools in 2005.

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Paul Kallender

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