Animal-shaped cushion has a wagging tail designed to simulate comfort from a pet

“At what price people will buy? Who would be the target user? We had no idea.”—Shunsuke Aoki

BY JEREMY LOSAW

For Shunsuke Aoki, robotics transcend the technology that cleans our floors and plays the song we want. He wants robotics to add warmth and emotional comfort to our lives.

“I define a robot as an interface that can move people’s minds and motivate them,” he said.

So it is fitting that at his Tokyo robotics engineering firm, Yukai Engineering, Aoki holds an annual intra-office competition in which his team is challenged to come up with a robot concept that fulfils a personal fantasy. 

A woman in his office, Naoka Takaoka, initiated the concept of a cushion with a wagging tail.

“She grew up in Hokkaido, which is a rural part of Japan, and she was surrounded with many dogs—more than 10,” Aoki said. “So, after she grew up and moved to Tokyo to study in college, she always wanted something to cuddle.”

However, Tokyo is very crowded. Having a pet is not allowed in many dwellings, a challenge that gave her the opportunity to build animal interaction back into her life. After all, scientific research has shown that interacting with animals lowers the stress hormone cortisol and can help reduce loneliness.

The eventual result was a product called Qoobo, which provides some of the joy of interacting with a pet but none of the issues such as logistics, expense, hassles of chewing furniture, and other indoor messes.

Qoobo is a robotic cushion with a tail that wags. The cushion has an abstracted form of a lap-sized house pet but with no discernable facial or other recognizable animal features.

The robotic tail responds to petting from the user—wagging excitedly or contentedly, depending on how it is played with. The tail also reacts to sounds. There is even a very subtle heartbeat.

Testing the waters

The Yukai team was always excited about the concept but initially unsure whether it could turn it into a product.

During the 2-3 months of the innovation challenge, the team took the concept from idea to prototype. The initial work used an Arduino for the control and four servos to create the motion in the tail. It was integrated into a soft cushion with long fur, reminiscent of a lap pet.

At the end of the challenge, the prototype was revealed at a private event with Aoki and the rest of the company to see what the teams had developed.

“It was sensational, as we had not seen this type of robot before,” he said, but actualization was problematic. “At what price people will buy? Who would be the target user? We had no idea,” he said.

The team took the concept to some department stores and retail buyers for feedback. There was interest in the product, but only if the design was more reminiscent of furniture than a toy.

Yukai decided to test the idea on Kickstarter and see what the reception was before taking the product any further. The campaign raised about $90,000 U.S. with almost 1,000 backers and was featured as a Kickstarter “Projects we Love.” This was the validation they needed to take the concept all the way to production.

Patent and other challenges

Qoobo is one of the stars of his portfolio, but Akoi’s other products reflect this ethos. He has bots that extract emotional tone from emails and a stuffed toy dog that provides a sucking motion to a finger placed in its mouth.

There are no utility patents filed around Qoobo, just design patents.

Akoi determined that the mechanism inside the device was not novel enough to warrant the effort and expense of a utility patent. However, he still wanted to protect the design concept, so he filed design patents in Asian countries and in the United States. His U.S. claim was not allowed. 

Qoobo is manufactured in China. Akoi had a colleague from a toy company who knew of some reputable factories for this type of product and used one of those recommendations. Because of a significant language barrier despite their proximity, English was used as the third-party language they both could understand.

There were many challenges in the manufacturing process. The prototype was not suitable for mass production; the mechanism was too complicated, and the number of tail segments and overall components had to be reduced.

However, the team kept the faceless ambiguity of the product as a core feature.

“Our intention is to leave space for imagination so that every user can imagine their own favorite animal,” Akoi said. “When you cuddle, you don’t need to actually see it, but you can feel the movement. … The sensation makes you happy.”

Next: Breathing?

Qoobo has been a big hit since its launch.

Akoi has brought the product to the Consumer Electronics Show and South by Southwest, and has been featured on many popular TV shows. The team learned from the first version that the product was a little too big, so it created the petite version that is more readily available outside of Asia.

Next on the agenda is working on potentially adding some breathing capability to Qoobo. The team has also been spending a lot of effort with the launch of Amagami Ham Ham, its robotic pet that nibbles your finger. It was launched on Indiegogo in late 2022.

Details: qoobo.info/index-en/