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Kobe to use avatar robots to ease 'hikikomori' shut-ins back into society

An OriHime avatar robot, which will be used to assist social recluses, is seen at the Kobe Municipal Government office on Nov. 24, 2021. (Mainichi/Shinya Yamamoto)

KOBE -- The municipal government of this west Japan city will introduce avatar robots to help "hikikomori" shut-ins ease back into society by giving them a way to interact with others remotely.

    In the initiative, the government aims to nudge shut-ins to step outside their homes and socialize with other participants at hikikomori support facilities

    The blue-eyed, 23-centimeter-tall avatar robot is called OriHime. It was developed by Tokyo-based Ory Lab Inc., which was founded in 2012. Users can remotely make conversation with people around the robot and move its arms through a smartphone or computer. The robots have been used in business for people to participate in remote conferences, and at schools for hospitalized children to attend classes virtually.

    There are an estimated 6,600 or so recluses in Kobe, and the city's social welfare council and community activity centers have set up 13 places for them to spend time as they gradually transition back into society, such as by eventually getting a job. The approach at each facility is different. At one, people read comics and play games, and at another, they do light work such as bagging products. The municipal government's office for social recluse support came up with the idea of using OriHime because several shut-ins with interest in the programs have held back from joining, saying they "want to know the atmosphere first," or, "I'm anxious about meeting people I don't know."

    The Kobe government intends to let social recluses interact with other participants at the facilities by using OriHime robots to convey their age range, gender and nicknames, with the goal of going in person within the next several months. The government will launch the initiative this month, and apparently 10 people have already expressed interest in using the avatars.

    An official at the city's office for social recluse support said, "There are many people with these problems that assistance hasn't reached yet. We hope that using the robots will lead to new inquiries."

    For more information and consultations, please contact the office by phone at: 078-361-3521 (in Japanese).

    (Japanese original by Shinya Yamamoto, Kobe Bureau)

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