Azuma is a cheerful young girl about twenty centimeters tall, with long blue hair, living under a glass bell. Lying near the sofa in the living room or on the night table, she welcomes her owner’s bachelor with a big smile when he comes home from work, then turns on the lights and informs him of the weather tomorrow. When her darling is not there, she sends him text messages to remind her that she thinks about him and is languishing.
This kind of Tinkerbell is called Azuma Hikari, and it is a character in the manga style: diaphanous skin, interminable legs, huge eyes and childish voice. She is the first occupant of the Gatebox, the magic box launched in December 2016 by Japanese company Vinclu. Once activated, the translucent bubble, placed on a black base, lights up and Azuma appears inside, like a hologram, it’s the first “Hologram Communication Robot”, as they call her.
Azuma lives her life inside the transparent globe. She sleeps, ishes her teeth, takes a cup of tea sitting in an armchair, but rises as soon as her “master”, as named on the site of the apparatus, solicits her. Equipped with a camera and a microphone, she recognizes him, distinguishes his movements, understands a few words and interacts with him, like virtual assistants like Siri.
If Azuma is, for the moment, less elaborate than robots, she has a considerable advantage: a body, untouchable but visible, animated, and she possess the adorable and fluid voice of the characters of Japanese cartoons. A body that gives fantasy, an animated creature to which one can attach oneself. “We are trying to make these characters naturally part of our daily lives and spend quiet moments with us,” explains its designers. Azuma is “a presence”.
In a video of demonstration, she is seen under her dome, tiny and smiling, sitting next to her young master watching television. It looks like a couple would be lazing on a Sunday night. “It is a comforting character for those who live alone,” says Vinclu’s website, which defines this virtual girlfriend as gentle, considerate and playful. One understands the goal: this little fairy of the house is supposed to fight the loneliness in a country where the number of singles grows. With Azuma, promises the company, “you will finally want to go home early.”
Just created, its Artificial Intelligence (AI) currently only includes Japanese, and the Gatebox is only available in Japan and the United States. Only 300 copies have been sold to date – at the price of 298,000 yen (2,400 euros). Will this virtual girl become the miniature companion of men alone?
But how does it works? Is it really a hologram? Well, not really, it is actually a projection on a glass plate and it uses the old and very famous “Pepper Ghost effect”, the same one that WDI Imagineers use in Disney’s Haunted Mansion since 50 years! But it works great, apparently as you’ll see on the videos below!