Otaku dream: this smart anime body pillow responds to your caress

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ItaspoTemple

Japanese manga and anime are two of the country’s most recognizable pop culture exports, with the likes of One Piece and Attack on Titan attracting die-hard followers across the globe. Obsessed fans – often referred to as otaku – pay tribute to their favorite two-dimensional characters in a variety of ways. On the milder side are those with sprawling action figure collections, and others who play dress-up at cosplay conventions. Hardcore otaku take the obsession further: “marrying” their 2D crush, and even sleeping with objects bearing the character’s resemblance.

Japanese entrepreneur Koichi Uchimura (pictured above) falls into the latter category. When I met him at a co-working space for startups in Fukuoka, he introduced me to his significant other: Rina Makuraba, a 160-centimeter body pillow.

Rina, a portmanteau of makura (the Japanese word for pillow) and ballerina, is an original 2D character that Koichi created to resemble his “dream girl.” She’s blonde with blue eyes, and Koichi – who’s 33 – describes her as a 14-year-old junior high school student.

Koichi stands proudly beside her, with a hand on Rina’s waist. I ask him if she’s his girlfriend.

He lets out a laugh and tells me, with confidence: “She’s my wife.”

Turning his gaze back to Rina, who’s sprawled out on the table between us, Koichi gives her an excited pat on the thigh.

“Stop talking, you pig!” she shouts, via the smartphone sitting next to her.

ItaspoTable

Heavy breathing

Otaku have been fond of body pillows for quite some time, as printed pillowcases allow them to literally sleep with their favorite character. But Koichi is taking the craze a step further. His product, Itaspo, uses sophisticated sensors that – when touched – allow the pillow to talk.

Itaspo’s sensors were created at the Kyushu Institute of Technology, where Koichi worked as a researcher before founding his startup, Joyas, in May 2014.

“Typical touch sensors don’t work with a cloth over them,” he tells Tech in Asia. “They also can’t tell the difference between a hit, a stroke, or a soft touch.”

To give your dakimakura (the Japanese term for body pillow, or literally “hug pillow”) the gift of gab, simply insert Itaspo’s three sensors beneath the pillowcase and connect the device to your smartphone via Bluetooth. The sensors can be positioned “wherever a user wants,” says Koichi – who opted to stick one on Rina’s head, one beneath her breasts, and another on her left thigh. One small caveat is that the sensors are connected to a slightly bulky box that houses an Arduino board and battery, which could be uncomfortable to roll onto in your sleep. Koichi is working on scaling its size down as much as possible.

ItaspoSensors

Itaspo’s companion app, available for iOS and Android, receives feedback based on how a user interacts with the sensors. Hits will elicit negative responses (“Stop it!”), which get increasingly nasty if the abuse continues (“You’re worthless!”). Stroking can go either way – from “No way” to “It’s getting hot.” Gentle touches produce both positive replies (“I like you”) and – if sustained – heavy breathing, moans, and screams of sexual ecstasy.

Over time, different touching styles will put Itaspo into one of five modes: “wife mode” being the best (if you touch it softly) and “extreme hate” being the worst (if you use it as a punching bag).

The sounds – 500 in total, so there’s not much concern about hearing the same response over and over – come from the connected smartphone’s speaker. Koichi hopes to monetize the app by offering additional voices and phrases that can be downloaded for a fee. Rina’s responses were recorded by a professional anime voice actress (who appears to be over 18).

“We’re not trying to get copyrights for existing characters, as we’d rather deal with [third parties] who have permission to produce official pillowcases, or sell the technology and APIs to them” he says. “We’ll also have a maker marketplace where users can sell original goods.”

Consumer ready

Joyas is a two-man team, bootstrapped with JPY 1.2 million (US$10,000) of Koichi’s own money. They were able to make Itaspo a reality thanks to a successful crowdfunding campaign on Makuake – Japan’s version of Kickstarter. Originally seeking just JPY 500,000 (US$4,200), Itaspo went on to raise more than JPY 3.7 million (US$31,000). A YouTube video (below) made for the campaign has 580,000 views and counting.

“I didn’t have a girlfriend and I was very lonely [before starting my company],” Koichi says. “I thought that 2D characters were cute and sexy – I was attracted to them.”

Two additional Itaspo character pillowcases are available.

Two additional Itaspo character pillowcases are available.

The Itaspo kit – which includes the sensor set and a custom pillowcase featuring one of three original characters (Rina included) – will retail for JPY 20,000 (US$166) when it goes on sale next month. Joyas already struck a distribution deal with Amazon Japan, and it can also be purchased directly through the app itself. Koichi plans to sell additional voice and phrase packs for roughly JPY 500 to 1,000 (US$4.15 to 8.30).

While he has no concrete plans for scaling internationally, Koichi hopes to eventually capitalize on the growing anime and manga fan base outside of Japan.

“I think that in Asia, especially, otaku culture is just going to get more and more popular,” he says. “Anime, manga, and goods associated with these 2D characters are booming. The market will only continue to grow.”

For Koichi, at least, Itaspo is already something he can’t live without.

“I use it every night,” he says with a grin.

See: The death and digital resurrection of Japan’s used panty vending machine

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