My Keepon also has the backing of one of the world’s largest toy stores, Toys “R” Us, which has the exclusive U.S. rights to sell the robot, originally a therapeutic tool for autistic children. The retailer will begin lining the shelves with My Keepons in late October, priming it to be the big holiday hit. By Christmas, if the bet pays off, My Keepon’s career arc will look a lot like Dr. Phil’s: from therapist to globally recognizable celebrity. “When you see it rocking out, you just can’t help but love it,” says Richard Barry, a vice-president at Toys “R” Us.
Keepon’s story begins about seven years ago with Hideki Kozima, a Japanese expert in artificial intelligence and robotics at the School of Project Design at Miyagi University. Kozima theorized that an emotive robot could help autistic children, who can be overwhelmed in face-to-face interactions, by reducing the complexities of communication to a few simple gestures. A child pats the robot on the head. It responds with a playful bob. The child talks to the robot. It turns to face him and nods.