Monday, April 24, 2017

Toolbox

  • Monday, Jan. 16, 2017
Sony's production technology helps realize drone story on "60 Minutes"
"60 Minutes" producer Mary Walsh (l) and freelance cameraman Leigh Hubner (Photo credit: CBS NEWS)

On Sunday, January 8, CBS’ 60 Minutes aired a piece on the Department of Defense’s Perdix autonomous military drones, filming an impressive spectacle - a swarm of 100 drones.  But this was no easy feat.  In fact, the small, fast-moving drones proved so difficult to capture that 60 Minutes nearly abandoned the entire story.  That’s when the team came up with an idea.  Would a cameraperson who is able to capture a small, fast moving golf ball be uniquely suited to capturing drones in flight?  With the help of the latest Sony production technology, the 60 Minutes team was willing to find out. 
 
Using Sony’s HDC-4300 4K high frame rate camera system attached to a nearby PWS-4500 4K server, golf cameraman Rudy Niedermeyer attempted to capture the drones in action.  60 Minutes Overtime, the program’s online source for material beyond the broadcast, was there to see if Niedermeyer would succeed.  After many failed attempts, Niedermeyer was able to take advantage of the camera’s 480 frames per second to slow the footage down.  With the right person, the right tools and multiple days of testing, 60 Minutes was ultimately able to achieve what they set out to do and spectacularly captured the swarm of Perdix.

  • Friday, Jan. 13, 2017
Nintendo debuts hotly anticipated Nintendo Switch console 
Nintendo Switch general producer Yoshiaki Koizumi speaks during a presentation event of the Nintendo Switch in Tokyo, Friday, Jan. 13, 2017. (AP Photo/Koji Sasahara)
TOKYO (AP) -- 

Nintendo is trying to Switch it up.

The Japanese video-game company revealed details Friday about its hotly anticipated Nintendo Switch, a video game console that also serves as a hand-held gaming device, during a global rollout on Friday.

The price in the U.S. will be $300, a bit above the $200 to $250 that analysts were expecting. It will debut March 3. The Switch is the first major hybrid console/hand-held gaming device.

"Nintendo Switch is a new way to play," said Nintendo of America president Reggie Fils-Aime at a packed event in New York, where several hundred reporters tried out games including the fantasy game "Zelda: Breath of the Wild" and the fighting game "Arms" on the device.

HOPING TO END A DRY SPELL

Nintendo needs the Switch to be a hit. Its previous game console, the Wii U, faded quickly, and its 3DS handheld was also a disappointment. The one-time king of the video-game console has since been largely eclipsed by the Sony PlayStation 4 and Microsoft's Xbox One.

The company has also been trying to catch up in mobile games, having largely missed a major shift to smartphones and tablets. "Pokemon Go," an augmented-reality smartphone game based on monster characters featured in Nintendo video games, was a surprise hit last summer — but Nintendo didn't create it.

Nintendo finally made a big push into mobile with "Super Mario Run" for the iPhone, which launched in December. The app became the highest grossing game in 11 countries a few hours after its release on Dec. 15, according to App Annie, making over $4 million worldwide in consumer spending on its first day. But by Christmas, it had fallen from the top, and it now ranks as the 26th top-grossing game in the U.S. App Store.

Analysts say the Switch needs to win over new, younger players who may not be hardcore game fans — and who now might be daunted by its hefty price tag. Many had hoped the Switch might sell for closer to $200. In Japan, the console will sell for 29,980 yen (about $260). Nintendo didn't release prices for other countries.

Investors were underwhelmed, sending Nintendo stock sinking in Tokyo trading after the announcement. It closed the day down 5.5 percent.

MEET THE SWITCH

The Switch features a large hand-held controller designed for both hands that works with the console. You can also snap off the sides of that controller to serve as separate left- and right-hand remotes, which Nintendo calls Joy-Cons, for two-handed play — sort of like Nintendo's older Wii controllers.

But there's more to the Switch's Lego-like tricks. You can also slide a flat screen resembling a tablet out of the main console and attach the Joy-Cons to it, and suddenly you have a new independent hand-held gaming device.

All that makes it possible to use the Switch as a regular handheld, put the display on a table, or use a TV screen as a monitor.

Nintendo is promising an immersive, interactive experience with the Switch, including online play and letting you use the remote controller for games that don't require constant attention to a display.

Nintendo officials in Japan used the Joy-Cons to play a gun-duel game. Motion sensors offer tactile feedback from games, such as feeling virtual water poured into a virtual cup. In another game, characters' arms swirled out during combat when players punched the air while holding the controllers.

"It's a totally new kind of game," said Kouichi Kawamoto, who oversaw "1-2-Switch," a gun-duel game that requires players to look each other in the eye. "It's about having fun with communication."

THE BIG PUSH

Nintendo said 50 software makers, including Electronic Arts and Sega, are preparing 80 games for the Switch. It also promised in-house games such as a Legend of Zelda game, which will go on sale the same date as the Switch.

The company is also setting up locations where people can try the device ahead of its launch, some in European cities.

In Tokyo, Hisashi Yao, senior analyst at Rheos Capital Works Inc., was impressed with how it was "focused on communication" and encouraged players to move about. "I got sweaty," he said.

IDC analyst Lewis Ward said at the New York event on Friday that the price tag isn't necessarily a deal breaker. "It's still pretty darn affordable," he said. He said he liked the way that the Switch incorporates the motion controllers of the Wii U in its design, meaning you can use separate controls in each hand to perform different tasks.

"I think it's going to do better than the Wii U — the design is more interesting," he said. "The motion control is distinctive."

Associated Press videographer Kaori Hitomi in Tokyo and Business Writer Mae Anderson in New York contributed to this report.

  • Thursday, Jan. 12, 2017
IHSE to demo KVM Solution at NAMM Show as a feature of Avid’s Pro Tools | S6 Audio Control Surface
Avid's Pro Tools | S6 With IHSE USA's Network KVM Solution
CRANBURY, NJ -- 

IHSE USA will showcase the latest KVM network capabilities integrated into the Avid Pro Tools | S6 audio control surface at the 2017 NAMM Show, Jan. 19-22 in Anaheim, Calif. The IHSE KVM solution, based on the Draco tera compact switch with HDMI extenders over Cat X, will be on display with a Pro Tools | S6 workstation in Avid’s booth, 6400.

“IHSE has long been a trusted provider of professional KVM solutions for studio recording and music production, so we were grateful for the opportunity to join forces with Avid to integrate KVM capabilities into its wildly popular audio desk,” said Dan Holland, marketing manager for IHSE USA. “IHSE continues to support Avid’s training and promotional teams through events like NAMM, allowing both current and future users to experience in real time the advantages KVM provides for studio editors and recording technicians.”

The S6 modular control surface now includes network KVM options through an interface based on the IHSE KVM protocol, a feature that better integrates switching between multiple digital audio workstations. With networked KVM capabilities enabled, Avid S6 users can enjoy the benefits of integrated KVM control to take advantage of faster workflows and extended visual feedback during editing sessions. Through the S6 Master Module, the central hub of the S6 surface, users can configure the network KVM to allow easy mixing and control of multiple music and/or audio post projects created on different audio workstations simultaneously — all from a single control surface. 

This new and innovative approach to advanced audio post and mixing offers users the ability to set up soft-key commands easily to operate different sources in a way that is completely transparent to the user. With only a few settings in the Master Module, operators can assign soft keys to switch immediately to and from different workstations. Another effective advantage of the IHSE KVM integration is the ability to define individual tracks of a fader module so that they automatically change to follow the preassigned sources defined through the KVM settings. This capability enables audio professionals to accelerate recording, editing, and mixing workflows in a more efficient and profitable process.

IHSE provides KVM matrix switchers in sizes ranging from eight ports to 576 ports. Users manage the system via RS-232 or Ethernet control, and extender modules are available to support DVI, HDMI, and DisplayPort video formats as well as USB, audio, and RS-422. Extender enclosures can be built to support two, four, six, or 21 cards and allow for optional redundant power. Extender cabling interconnects are available in Cat5e/6/7 or fiber-optic cables.

  • Tuesday, Jan. 10, 2017
Ireland's TV3 Group deploys Avid Studio Suite
BURLINGTON, Mass. -- 

The Republic of Ireland’s leading commercial broadcaster, TV3, has implemented next-generation graphics solutions from the Avid Studio Suite. Adopting additional comprehensive tools from the tightly integrated Avid MediaCentral® Platform will enable TV3 to maintain its competitive edge.
 
Operating out of its flagship broadcast hub in Dublin, TV3 needed to revitalize the traditional daily studio production for a range of its key programming, re-enforce its shows’ brands to viewers, and give producers and journalists greater ownership of their content. The soon-to-be upgraded “Studio One” is the main workhorse of TV3, broadcasting almost all of the daily studio output, covering everything from news and magazine shows to current affairs.
 
TV3 will be incorporating comprehensive tools from the Avid Storage, Media and Studio Suites into an existing Avid infrastructure to maximize audience engagement with stunning visual content and graphics. This includes integrating Avid Maestro™ and 4Designer--two of the most powerful tools from the Avid Studio Suite--with existing Avid Media Composer® suites, Avid Interplay® | Production media management and Avid shared storage.
 
Avid 4Designer graphics authoring software, the foundation of all Avid real-time graphics systems, will enable TV3 to enhance its television content for newscasts, panel shows and sports programming. Maestro, Avid’s on-air graphics and video solution, will empower TV3 to create, manage, distribute and play out stunning, high-resolution 3D graphics and videos easily, also allowing viewers to interact through on-screen social media integration.
 
“We feel graphical information should never be intrusive, but only add to the narrative of the main content,” said Liam O Neill, head of graphics at TV3 Group. “Avid’s tools will help us create greater ownership and awareness of graphic looks within program teams. It will also allow the TV3 graphics team greater movement to create more dynamic transitions, which in turn, will create a more balanced flow between graphic and live studio content.”
 
TV3’s investment also includes a support contract with Avid Global Services, tailored to meet the needs of the entire broadcast group and its channels. Users and operators have access to training packages to learn and use the systems to their best ability to increase the lifetime value of these new assets. Avid’s high-quality integrated graphics systems will also allow TV3 to easily adapt future requirements, such as moving toward cloud-based workflows.
 
Supplied by Dublin-based reseller and Avid partner, Tyrell CCT, TV3’s project was designed on a flexible deployment model, expanding upon their current commercial structure and licensing arrangement. The upgrade will go live toward the end of January 2017, with a view to enhance TV3’s ‘Studio Two’ in the near future.
 
“TV3’s new workflow results in an efficient, open ecosystem to create eye-catching graphics and generate engaging content for millions of Irish television viewers,” said Tom Cordiner, sr. VP, global sales for Avid. “With its operations built on a consistent set of core Avid workflows, TV3 continues to play a leading role in a preeminent client and user community, enhancing collaboration, creation, distribution and optimizing the sharing of media assets.”
 
Beginning in the late 1990’s, TV3 Group offers viewers the most popular programming, including global sports events like the Rugby World Cup, news, analytical and documentary shows, entertainment programs and award-winning reality television like The X Factor and Britain’s Got Talent. It also runs a sister channel, 3e, targeting a younger audience demographic between 15 and 34.

  • Thursday, Jan. 5, 2017
URSA Mini 4.6K camera used to lens Chinese commercials
A scene from one of the gf commercials from social creative company Verawom.
FREMONT, Calif. -- 

Blackmagic Design announced that its Blackmagic URSA Mini 4.6K camera was used by director Yu Gang to shoot a series of "Three Body" themed web commercials starring famous Chinese actor Feng Shaofeng for the gf skincare products of Shanghai Jahwa, one of China’s oldest daily used chemical companies.
 
Inspired by the award winning science fiction trilogy “Remembrance of Earth’s Past” (aka “The Three Body Problem”) by Chinese writer Liu Cixin, in which the alien Trisolarans evolve to be able to hydrate and dehydrate their bodies to adapt to the harsh environment on their planet that is part of a stellar system with three Suns, China’s leading social creative company Verawom designed the commercials to highlight gf’s ability to retain moisture. Verawom trusted director Yu Gang with this project.
 
The series of commercials for gf were shot with director Gang’s own URSA Mini 4.6K, with which he has also shot promos for popular Chinese cosmetics brand Herborist and fashion brand Erdos.
 
“Before this project, my cinematographer hadn’t used the URSA Mini 4.6K camera. But by the middle of the production, he had found its latitude was so great that he didn’t have to worry about the possibility of getting blown out highlights. After the production, he and the assistant director, who often shoot car commercials, were convinced the URSA Mini 4.6K is a great camera for high end TVC projects,” said Gang.
 
All footage was recorded to 4:1 RAW. “I like the URSA Mini’s ability to record 4:1 RAW because it gives you great quality and much more freedom in postproduction, but the files are even smaller than ProRes 444. The footage looks clean without too much noise. If you want it even cleaner, a pass of temporal noise reduction in Resolve helps. The combination of the URSA Mini and the included DaVinci Resolve Studio is another strength of the camera,” said Gang.
 
Speaking of the URSA Mini and DaVinci Resolve Studio bundle, the director also mentioned “the slate feature in the URSA Mini is great for shot logging, which makes takes selection very quick in post because you can do it when you do transcoding and rough edits in Resolve, making the editor’s life much easier. For long form projects, the more information you log, the more organized in post.”
 
In the spots, there is a scene where the character floats in a spaceship due to zero gravity. It was recorded at 50fps in 4:1 RAW to simulate the absence of weight. “We didn’t have to use lower recording quality for high frame rate recording so the image quality is the same as that of other scenes,” he said.
 
All footage was transcoded on set with DaVinci Resolve Studio to 1080p ProRes 422 HQ for editing. When the editing was finalized, the timeline was rebuilt in DaVinci Resolve Studio with the original RAW footage for grading.

  • Thursday, Jan. 5, 2017
Grass Valley switchers play part in Australian Broadcasting Corp.’s national upgrade
Grass Valley’s Karrera K-Frame S-Series
MONTREAL -- 

The Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC) has been relying on production solutions from Grass Valley, a Belden Brand, for more than 20 years. When the company began its latest project to upgrade 13 studios in eight capital cities across the country, it selected Grass Valley’s K-Frame-based switchers for all 13 locations, with a mixture of Karrera and the new award-winning GV Korona switcher panels.

The ABC has turned to Grass Valley for switcher solutions because of the rich features, dependable operation and intuitive controls the switchers offer. The new K-Frame systems are replacing a fleet of older Grass Valley Kayak switchers and will continue to be instrumental in the production of news programming for the company.

Both Karrera and GV Korona K-Frame switchers combine ultimate video processing performance, proven workflows, simplified control of complex productions and multiformat support including 1080p and 4K UHD. These capabilities are offered as two system packages, with 3 M/Es or 2 M/Es, for exceptional affordability, while the compact 6 RU video frame delivers a high level of functional integration for space efficiency.

The ABC has taken advantage of the flexibility of the K-Frame engine to be paired with different control surfaces. The new switchers will join the existing fleet of Grass Valley Kayenne K-Frames currently in operation in the ABC’s studio production facilities. The 13 studios are responsible for the playout of ABC news and current affairs and will work closely with the ABC Integrated Media System (IMS) system that Grass Valley is providing to help the ABC renew its entire television, radio and web news production across Australia.

  • Wednesday, Jan. 4, 2017
CES Report: Incremental Advances In TV Sets
Workers hang up a sign near a Samsung TV banner during setup for CES International, Tuesday, Jan. 3, 2017, in Las Vegas. The show runs from January 5-8. (AP Photo/John Locher)
LAS VEGAS (AP) -- 

What's new in television sets this year? Incrementally better pictures, larger screens and cheaper prices — and that's about it.

True, set manufacturers are bombarding consumers with a whole series of buzzwords — OLED, 4K, 8K, HDR, QLED, wide color gamut — intended to spur excitement and generate sales. Flashy new sets with these supposedly "must have" features are getting the spotlight Wednesday at the annual CES gadget show in Las Vegas.

But when it comes down to it, none of these amount to revolutionary improvements for your living room. Set manufacturers may not have run out of technological tricks yet, but for this year, at least, they're reduced to improving what's already out there.

"That's a good thing," said Gartner analyst Brian Blau, looking for the bright side. "Products need to be improved."

TRAPPED IN THE BOX
Set manufacturers are in a bind. Gadgets like virtual-reality headsets and smartphones have snagged much of the buzz that flashy new TVs once had.

And while all sorts of other gadgets are getting more intelligent, so-called smart TVs that manage streaming-video services and let you play games have largely left consumers cold . Instead, the brains behind such features have largely migrated to set-top boxes offered by the likes of Roku, Apple and Amazon — or by cable companies themselves.

So TV makers like Samsung and LG have doubled down on what they know best: screen technology.

These days, you're seeing a lot more marketing buzz about "4K" sets, which offer twice the screen resolution of today's high definition, or HD, sets. 4K technology is making a push into the mainstream this year, as prices come down and video providers offer more 4K streaming and channels.

The next step in picture clarity is on its way with so-called 8K sets, which offer four times the resolution of HD, although the technology remains out of reach for most people. During the Summer Olympics last year, for instance, experimental 8K broadcasts were limited to public viewing areas in Japan.

SEEING IN COLOR
Some TV makers are pushing curved-screen models, which aim to provide more immersive viewing by giving viewers a wider image via their peripheral vision. They're also touting improvements in color .

OLED screen technology produces better colors in part because it doesn't have to be backlit the way standard TVs do. But it's more expensive. So far, LG has sold the majority of OLED sets, though other manufacturers including Sony may announce OLED plans at CES.

Samsung, meanwhile, has been touting "quantum dot" technology, including a refined version called "QLED" announced Tuesday at CES. Quantum dot is essentially a layer of materials for purer colors and brighter displays. LG, Samsung and others also have "high-dynamic range," or HDR, for brighter whites, darker blacks, and a wider range of colors. TCL has an HDR variant called Dolby Vision.

DOES IT MATTER?
Whether the average human eye can really appreciate all this — particularly on smaller screens — is another matter. 4K sets, for instance, offer sharper pictures than older HD screens, but the difference is nowhere as dramatic as the change from older standard definition to HD.

And some of these technologies improve video only for the few movies and shows that support them. For now, technologies like HDR are high-end features for high-end sets, just as 4K was a few years ago.

"There's always a push-and-pull between what TV companies try to sell consumers and what they actually need," IHS Markit analyst Paul Gagnon said.

Ed Morrissey, a writer in Minneapolis, recently bought a 55-inch Samsung 4K TV with a curved screen and HDR, in part to future-proof a purchase he could be living with for almost a decade. "If I'm going to do something new, I want to make sure I have the emerging technology," he said.

It's far from clear, however, which of the color technologies will become standard. Buyers like Morrissey could end up stranded if, for instance, HDR fails to take off — just as buyers of 3-D sets were after the technology flopped.

TV manufacturers are taking some other steps to make their sets more useful. Gagnon said he expects announcements from TV makers about how their sets will work with new home hubs such as the Amazon Echo and Google Home. And Samsung, Philips and others are allowing people to use smartphones and tablets and voice control to better navigate through channels and streaming services.

RUNNING FOR 4K
About 19 percent of TVs sold in the U.S. in the past year were 4K, up from just 7 percent a year earlier, according to NPD. That's expected to increase to about one-third of TV sales in 2017, as TV makers unveil more models at a wider range of prices, including budget options.

But HDTVs still suffice for many, especially those uninterested in large screens. 4K makes a difference only when the screen is large enough and the couch close enough.

"4K is kind of too much for the amount of time I use it," said John Murphy, a Barnstable, Massachusetts, retiree who bought a 50-inch Samsung HD TV recently to replace his 10-year-old Sony 42-incher.

A BUYING OPPORTUNITY
High-end screens and other technologies that were out of reach for most TV shoppers are becoming much more affordable. Consumers are snapping up bargains. NPD says there were 37.4 million TV units sold in the U.S. in the 12 months ending in September, up 4 percent from a year ago. Over that time, the average TV selling price dropped 3 percent to $432.

For some buyers, lower prices means a chance to upgrade to bigger sets. Jon Abt, co-president of Abt Electronics retail store near Chicago, said the 55-inch "sweet spot" TV size for the family room seems to have jumped to 65-inch and larger.

NPD said that 23 percent of all TVs sold were 55 inches or bigger, up from 20 percent a year earlier.

"We've seen strength across all categories, small screen, large screen, older technology and newer tech," NPD analyst Stephen Baker said. He said the combination of lower prices, picture quality and screen size has "brought a lot of customers back into the market."

  • Wednesday, Jan. 4, 2017
Telestream to showcase advances in live streaming, workflow automation at BVE
Telestream's live streaming advances will be demonstrated at BVE 2017.
NEVADA CITY, Calif. -- 

Telestream® (stand N22), a provider of digital media tools and workflow solutions, will use BVE 2017 (Feb. 28-March 2) to provide UK debuts for significant new developments in both hardware and software products for streaming and workflow automation. Furthermore, it will be the first UK trade show since Telestream acquired file-based quality control specialist, Vidcheck. The company will showcase the integration between Vidchecker and Vantage, highlighting latest updates in Vidchecker, and the operational efficiencies these two platforms bring to their users.

Forming the centerpiece of its technology showcase, Telestream’s Vantage® Media Processing Platform is the foundation for a broad range of enterprise-class transcoding and workflow automation software products that allow content owners, producers, and distributors to realize significant savings and efficiencies, elegantly streamlining discrete media processing tasks. At BVE, Telestream will spotlight new ways in which Vantage supports a diversity of trending technologies and standards. New at the show is a no-charge update to Vantage Timed Text Flip, which adds support for DVB subtitle conversion and insertion. In addition, Telestream will demonstrate how Vantage 16 bit video processing pipeline supports the emerging HDR (High Dynamic Range) formats. Telestream has long been a supporter of the Digital Production Partnership (DPP) and at BVE will be demonstrating continued Vantage support for the new DPP delivery specifications, along with support for the emergent IMF standards at both the simple and complex levels.

A particular focus for Telestream at BVE will be live video streaming. Telestream has been developing streaming solutions since 2009 and has over 50,000 active licence holders of its Wirecast live streaming production platform, which last year became one of the first streaming platforms to support Facebook Live. Response to this feature has been significant as Wirecast is allowing users to build bigger audiences with Facebook Live broadcasts that are richer in both style and content.

Also at BVE, Telestream will provide a UK debut for its Lightspeed Live Stream enterprise-class live multiscreen encoding, packaging and distribution system. It can be deployed as a standalone solution for live multiscreen streaming services or combined with the Vantage Media Processing Platform via the optional Lightspeed Live Capture product.

“We live in a rapidly evolving digital environment where broadcasters and service providers must remain laser-focussed on production and delivery technologies in order to create efficiencies, increase reach and engagement, and maximize revenue,” commented Guy Elliott, region sales manager, EMEA at Telestream. “At Telestream, the last 12 months have seen some key strategic changes, both with the introduction of new products and the acquisition of Vidcheck. BVE provides a fantastic opportunity to present the new, richer offering of products and services to the UK and wider European market. We’re bullish about the strategic and tactical advantages we can provide our users: look forward to some exciting discussions at BVE.”

  • Tuesday, Jan. 3, 2017
Gadget Show: Annual CES tech show opens in Las Vegas
Fireworks explode over the Las Vegas Strip during a New Year's Eve celebration Sunday, Jan. 1, 2017, in Las Vegas. (AP Photo/John Locher)
LAS VEGAS (AP) -- 

TVs, drones, robots and a slew of other gadgets will showcase the annual CES gadget show in Las Vegas this week.

CES is one of the world's largest trade shows and is the forum for many tech companies and startups to unveil their plans for the year. Its influence has waned over the years, given that many leading companies including Apple, Google and Microsoft hold their own events. But the CES show still draws a lot of attention.

The event starts Tuesday with two days of company announcements on new products and services. The show floor itself opens on Thursday.

Gadgets expected include TVs with new capabilities and better picture quality, as well as all sorts of household products with internet connections, including refrigerators, doors and security cameras.

  • Thursday, Dec. 29, 2016
Humanoid robot Pepper is amusing, but is it practical? 
In this Thursday, Dec. 22, 2016, photo, Emerson Hill, 6, plays with Pepper the robot at Westfield Mall in San Francisco. (AP Photo/Jeff Chiu)
SAN FRANCISCO (AP) -- 

While merrily chirping, dancing and posing for selfies, a robot named Pepper looks like another expensive toy at a San Francisco mall. But don't dismiss it as mere child's play.

Pepper embodies the ambitions of SoftBank Robotics, an Asian joint venture formed by a trio of major technology companies that's aiming to put its personable robots in businesses and homes across the U.S. over the next few years.

If the technology advances as SoftBank Robotics hopes, Pepper could become a playmate, companion and concierge. It could eventually respond to voice commands to retrieve vital information, make reservations and control home appliances that are connected to the internet.

That's the theory, anyway. For now, Pepper is more amusing than practical, Forrester Research analyst J.P. Gownder says. For instance, Pepper has been directing shoppers to stores in the mall through text messages because it still isn't advanced enough to say them out loud. And Pepper still has trouble understanding what people are asking, requiring shoppers to type in their requests for mall directions on a tablet mounted on the robot's chest.

SoftBank is trying to improve Pepper's capabilities by focusing first on the business market - retailers, hotels, auto dealerships and even hospitals. SoftBank hopes to use those environments to learn more about what consumers like and don't like about Pepper and, from that, teach it more tasks, said Steve Carlin, the venture's vice president for marketing and business development in North America..

The recently launched test runs in Westfield Corp.'s malls in San Francisco and Santa Clara, California, mark the first time that Pepper has made an extended appearance in the U.S. The robots began appearing just before Thanksgiving and will stick around through mid-February. Carlin says about 300 to 500 people per day engaged with Pepper during its first month in the San Francisco mall. During a recent visit, kids flocked around the 4-foot-tall humanoid as it spoke in a cherubic voice that could belong to either a boy or girl.

Westfield views Pepper as a way to make shopping in the mall more entertaining and enjoyable at a time when people are increasingly buying merchandise online. Three Peppers are sprinkled in heavily trafficked areas around Westfield's San Francisco mall and the two more are in the Santa Clara center. If all goes well, Westfield also plans to bring Pepper to its New York mall at the World Trade Center and Garden State mall in Paramus, New Jersey.

"We put her in our (human resources) system and have given her a name tag," says Shawn Pauli, senior vice president for Westfield.

Pepper got its start two years ago in Japan before expanding into Europe. In those two markets, more than 10,000 Peppers are already operating in grocery stores, coffee shops, banks, cruise lines, railway stations and homes. Most of the robots are in businesses. SoftBank hasn't disclosed how many have been sold to consumers.

Carlin acknowledges the U.S. will be a tougher market to crack than Japan, where he says consumers tend to embrace new technology more quickly.

In addition, Pepper's price is likely to be out of reach for most consumers. The robot currently sells for about $2,000; a three-year subscription covering software upgrades, insurance and technology support increases the total to $18,000 to $20,000.

Softbank Robotics is controlled by Japan's Softbank Group, a technology conglomerate that recently pledged to invest $50 billion in U.S. startups. A remaining 40 percent stake is equally owned by China's Alibaba Group, Asia's e-commerce leader, and by Taiwan's Foxconn, which assembles Apple's iPhone and is considering a U.S. expansion.

Despite its pedigree, Pepper already lags behind a cruder-looking robot that home improvement retailer Lowe's has been testing as a way to help shoppers find merchandise in its sprawling stores, Gownder says.

The "LoweBot," a box-like machine on wheels, began patrolling a San Jose, California, store last month and will begin showing up in 10 other stores in the San Francisco Bay area in early 2017. If all goes well, it could become a fixture in all of Lowe's stores.

Gownder gives LoweBot the early edge over Pepper because Lowe's machine has a detailed database of the store's inventory, enabling it to quickly determine if something is in stock and then guide shoppers to the aisle where the requested item is located.

"While Pepper offers a lively, appealing interface, it remains to be seen whether it will fill the role that retailers want," Gownder says. "Does it have enough intelligence to answer customers' questions effectively?"

While LoweBot is a one-trick pony, focused on retail tasks, SoftBank's ambitions with Pepper are greater. Pepper has enough artificial intelligence to recognize smiles and frowns, helping the robot understand the mood of a person interacting with it. But it also tends to lock its electronic eyes on someone standing in front of it and continue to follow people as they look away while ignoring the next visitor.

A recent visitor to the San Francisco mall, Sharif Ezzat, noticed some of Pepper's shortcomings and concluded that the robot is still a long way from having mass appeal.

"I can't see it right now, but I can see where it's going," Ezzat said of Pepper's potential.

Chaz MacSwan, a puppeteer in San Francisco, was more impressed.

"Look at the joy it's bringing to people, especially the kids," MacSwan said. "I'd love to have one, especially if it could clean the carpets."