Do you have any childhood memories of when you were alone at home waiting for your parents to come home?
Or as a parent, do you feel safe leaving your child home alone? With double income households on the rise, more and more children are now coming back home from school to an empty house. That’s why BOCCO is here to help connect these families.
BOCCO is connected to a sensor on the door and which sends notifications to parents when their children come back home. BOCCO allows communication between families with two simple features: a voice recording and playback function. Because it is not a real-time conversation, parents can record and send voice messages during their free time at work. A simple communication of “I’m home” “Welcome home” makes a big difference for both the working parents and their children.
The company behind the development of BOCCO is Yukai Engineering, a Japanese startup known for their unique products. “Yukai” which loosely translates to “delightful” in English, perfectly describes this company, as the startup is also the creators of other “delightful” devices. Some examples are “necomimi”, a headband communication device that uses brainwaves to express your feelings, and “Pepper’s Magic Remote” that lets SoftBank Robotics Corps.’ Pepper to control home appliances via infrared transmission. Today, we had the opportunity to interview Shunsuke Aoki, CEO of Yukai Engineering, to learn all about BOCCO and the secrets to their success.
From the Creator’s Experience as a Working Parent.
—Thanks for sitting down with me today. Can you tell me who the mastermind behind Bocco is?
Shunsuke: Actually, it was me! As a working parent, I wanted to keep an eye on my child but I was also hesitant to give my child a smartphone. Once a child is in possession of a smartphone, all they do is watch videos and play games on it. With videos and anime, you only use your eyes. However, human development depends on you moving your body and stimulating all your senses. You can achieve this when you are exposed to nature, like when you are playing at the park. I didn’t want smartphones to take away opportunities to from my child.
At the same time, I frequently heard mothers at my child’s school talking about how comfortable they would feel if they could just get some kind of notification that signals whenever their child comes home.
IoT is able to fill in the voids left by what smartphones can’t do with gentle technology. With this idea in mind, we began to develop BOCCO.
—So BOCCO was developed from your own parenting experiences. Was there anything you focused on in particular, creating this family-friendly device?
Shunsuke: IoT robots are perfect for the elderly and young children. We utilized use case methodology, focusing on producing a device that is easy to use. By omitting extra functions we made the device easier for families to incorporate it into their lives.
For example, there were requests for the installation of a camera function, but we intentionally left it out because there are enough camera devices in the world, and we thought the sound function was enough to notify parents of their child’s safety.
—It certainly is a robot designed with the user in mind. It is almost a year since you started selling BOCCO at DMM.make ROBOTS last July. How has the reaction been so far?
Shunsuke: Our shipments have already hit the thousands, and it is being used in many homes. There was an unexpected number of customers who told us that after buying one for their children, they also bought one for their grandparents.
In the near future, we hope to implement new features such as voice recognition and temperature sensors in addition to updates in the software.
Setting the Standard for All Communication Robots
— You create a wide range of products, from totally geeky iDoll to the family-friendly BOCCO. I’m curious as to whether your company has a mission, or a particular direction of what kind of products you hope to create.
Shunsuke: We have the desire to spread the use of communication robots used in the house. Currently, smartphones are used as the user interface for IoT devices, but if this trend continues, people will never be able to get of their smartphones inside the house.
You see in restaurants people who are constantly looking down at their smartphones. Smartphones are supposed to connect you with people far away, but it prevents you from connecting with the people who are right in front of you. Robots, on the other hand do not have to interfere with human communication because they allow for the input and output of information by integrating as a member of the family.
We want to create the standard of family robots that work as the gateway to the internet and IoT.
—I’ve never thought of the advantages robots have over smartphones. What is the magic behind your company being able to make such “delightful” products?
Shunsuke: We tend to start with the technology side of product development first. We usually develop the technology, then brainstorm what we can make with it, combining different use cases, like who would benefit or experience happiness from using what kind of product.
On the other hand, we also have several products that started with us saying, “let’s just try making it!” Then, if we see potential in the product, we continue to make it into an actual product. Besides, the company is made up of people who love manufacturing so we are always making things anyway.
Not Everything is Fun and Games
—It’s wonderful how much your company really loves robot making. However, I’m sure you have had to overcome many adversities. For example, how did you raise seed funds?
Shunsuke: Instead of raising capital, we made our initial goal to create a product that we could start a crowdfunding campaign with. If we received capital from VCs before we actually had a project idea set in stone, we thought we would suffer under lot of pressure from the VCs. Plus we were afraid of losing our say in the project.
We believed raising funds through a successful crowdfunding campaign would better allow us to negotiate for future capital and until then, I knew we could survive off subsidies and loans from the government.
—I see, creating an appealing product will naturally lead to capital. How did you go through the mass production process, the biggest obstacle for hardware startups?
Shunsuke: We learned a lot, and in fact still are, learning from mistakes in that field. We start in Japan with the small lot production, and then depending on the project, we split the rest of the production between Japan and China. I lived in China for a few years so I am able to directly contact and negotiate with factories through Alibaba in Chinese.
However, when dealing with Chinese factories we stress on quality since parts especially like the power and batteries could catch on fire if they are low quality. Since around 2010 we have also frequently visit these factories. But even if I can speak the language, we face difficulties because it’s tough to express the specifications in detail in Chinese so it doesn’t always come out exactly the way we want it to.
Sometimes it’s not even a matter of communication of language; they refuse to listen to our requests.
—What is the plan in regards to market expansion?
Shunsuke: I think we will face difficulties in this field. We have been steadily promoting and marketing though, since our name needs to be somewhat known in order to gain customers. On the other hand, there are now collaborations between crowdfunding websites and retail stores like TSUYAUA and department stores, so there is also the option of using crowdfunding success to bring the product straight into retail.
—I think Yukai Engineering’s story will definitely help other hardware startups. Lastly, can you tell me what kinds of presence robots are going to have in the future society?
Shunsuke: I think they’ll become part of the family, sort of like a pet, but also like with a spirit.
—That’s certainly a Yukai Engineering-like answer! Thank you so much for a great interview!
Shunsuke’s love for robots was evident during the entire interview. There were machines in motion the whole time I was at their office and I understood that Yukai Engineering’s success really comes from the entire teams’ love of manufacturing. As a result of this love, their office was filled with all sorts of unique and exciting devices that made me feel like a child again help checking them all out.
As a consumer, I am excited for the next unique product Yukai Engineering has in store for us.
BOCCO 29,000 JPY (tax not included)