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     Jul 20, 2005
Korea's intelligent robot industry

SEOUL - With South Korean robot manufacturers vying to unveil new products in the second half of the year, intelligent robots represent a soon-to-be booming industry that could reach 30 trillion won (US$29.7 billion) by 2013 from the current 300 billion won.

Yujin Robotics is planning to release its ICLEBO-Q later this year, a robot-cleaner one step up from predecessor ICLEBO, South Korea's first commercial robot. Meanwhile, LG Electronics Co is back in business with its ROBOKING 2, another cleaning robot priced around 1 million won. The original went on sale two years ago for three times that price before sluggish sales forced LG to pull the plug.

At the high end of the market, veteran player Hanool Robotics is retailing its OTTORO model for 4 million won for consumers who like their robot to self-charge and navigate its way around the interior of their house independently. "Cleaning robots suit the emerging market since they are relatively familiar to consumers as a household appliance," said an industry source.

Entertainment robots are still a way off, however, as manufacturers consider how to integrate applications that make educational software all part of the fun. "Many entertainment robots may be built by applying diverse cultural contents," said Cho Young-hoon, director of the Korea Advanced Intelligent Robot Association (KAIRA).

"Entertainment robots could become massively popular as an education tool when made to download contents from children's education websites," said Cho Won-tae, chief executive officer of IZI Robotics. IZI Robotics plans to release a robo-puppy in May 2006 that can download content from the Internet. Japan's Sony Corp introduced its puppy robot brand, Aibo, in 1999. Both will encounter competition from lower-priced DASATECH, which plans to jump into the fray for cute, if computer-like, canines next year.

But with some prodding by the government and its policies to buttress the new industry, the demand for personal robots is expected to rise rapidly. The Ministry of Information and Technology plans to place test robots in apartments and post offices that operate a broad convergence network (BcN) to give the new field greater exposure to consumers. "The opportunities for the public to experience robots will become more frequent and natural," said an industry source.

Big conglomerates are tending to bide their time before making any commitments, waiting to see how LG fares before diving into a market that has not yet proven its lucrative potential. Samsung Electronics is developing its own models but is believed to be deferring its commercial entrance pending brighter market prospects. Samsung unveiled 14 robots at an exhibition in Seoul last March and is currently developing a security model as part of the Ubiquitous Robot Companion project organized by the Information Ministry.

While companies like Daewoo Electronics are hesitant, however, saying they will decide in September on the commercial release of a cleaning robot, telecommunication giant KT gave an August date for its household helper managed via the company's wireless Internet service. Yet, despite combined efforts to shove the country into the era of state-of-the-art robotics, several hurdles remain, including price setting and performance - the latter seeming in many instances anti-climactic given the consumers' inflated expectations from Hollywood movies.

"People tend to think that cleaning robots can take care of all of the cleaning chores," said an industry source, adding that this was not the case. Astronomic marketing costs and tight budgets will also hinder manufacturers, many of which are small and medium businesses. Companies are now sweating over where to set prices on a scale of affordable to what many would call outrageous, or 300,000 won to 4 million won.

"The important issue now is to maximize consumer satisfaction in correlation to the price range," said the source. A lack of technical standardization connecting high-end products is also holding the industry back. While common standards are essential to incorporate different robots with varying electronic devices into the same intelligent network, experts also clamor that they are needed to wipe out cheap models pumped out by countries like China that fail to meet basic criteria.

Reports have it that 10 cleaning robots are being sold on the mainland, most of them copies of well-established models that fall short of their South Korean counterparts in terms of core function. Pundits say this could destroy the reputation of an industry that looks set to snowball. "If people spread the word after using cheap foreign-made robots that they aren't as good as expected, it would deal a massive blow to the robot industry which is just about to blossom," an industry source said.

The South Korean robot industry is in the process of establishing a common technical standard. KAIRA plans to decide a common scheme for network-based intelligent robots, as well as a common technical standard for robots for teenagers by the end of the year. "It isn't easy to come up with a common scheme for robots while new developments are pouring out every second," said Chang Sung-jo, director of the Korea Association of Robotics, adding that a technical standard is likely to be ready by 2008.

(Asia Pulse/Yonhap)

Seoul probes dumping of Japanese robots (Sep 24, '04)

S Korean robots narrow gap with competition (Jun 3, '04)


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