Capable of controlling the lights, A.C., and other household appliances, as well as functioning as an alarm clock and a weathergirl, Vinclu Inc.’s Gatebox is Amazon’s Alexa with an otaku spin. It takes the form of a glass tube capable of projecting a 3D hologram of an anime girl inside. An array of speakers, microphones, and sensors allows her to interact with the user through speech.
Gatebox is more than just another virtual assistant in the vein of Amazon Alexa, Microsoft Cortana, or Google Home, however. Hikari Azuma, the first character available with the system, acts more like a doting girlfriend than a secretary. She chats with the user, watches TV with him, and will even text him while he’s out at work.
With an increasing number of people living alone, it’s very easy to understand the market for a home assistant program. Add a cute anime girl and a heavy dose of “artificial girlfriend” and it easily doubles as a companion for the lonely.
It’s very easy to make fun of Gatebox, or to vilify it for supposedly contributing to Japan’s birthrate crisis. Consider, however, that regardless of whether people are dating or not, many still desire companionship. Gatebox solves that problem in the home, allowing its users a relaxing in-home companion to take the edge off of the demanding work culture.
Anyone who’s been lonely for a long time can empathize with how soul-crushing it can be. Couple that with Japan’s work culture and the extra amount of social ostracism otaku endure and it can be downright unbearable. Gatebox and its caring holographic anime girl companion bring light into an otherwise potentially bleak existence.
This technology isn’t entirely free of potential harm, however. Japan’s dating culture is already on a downward slope, and appliances like Gatebox might provide just good enough of a simulacrum of human interaction for some users to elect to leave the dating pool permanently.
Many are already content to focus on their hobbies and let their love lives lapse. The opportunity to have a degree of companionship, someone waiting at home for them, as said in the promotional video, might push some over the edge into never dating again and devoting their lives to their work and their hobbies.
That said, Gatebox represents a relatively rudimentary level of artificial companionship technology. While she can talk and text, there’s no physical element at all. While many commentators are already touting Gatebox as a further threat to Japan’s birthrate or a replacement for real women, there’s still plenty a real human can do that Hikari is fully incapable of.