I’m not sure what the word is for something that is extremely adorable and also a little sad, but I have found the physical embodiment of it: this robot designed for people who live alone. Its name is Fribo, and it’s making the internet awww in every possible way. Is it cute? Is it kinda depressing? Is it a tiny bit creepy? Twitter says all of the above.
According to Fortune, Fribo was designed by Korean researchers who wanted to help lonely young people stay connected. Fribo, a robot that looks like a cross between a shadow and an anime cat, works by observing what a person is doing around their home. The robot uses sound and motion sensory detection to determine whether you just walked through the door, are doing your laundry, or doing other household activities. Then, Fribo will prompt your friends who have a Fribo of their own to message you based on that activity. For example, when you open your refrigerator, your friend’s Fribo will say that you’ve “just opened the refrigerator door.” Then, Fribo will add a note hoping to prompt your friend to message you. (i.e. “I wonder which food your friend is going to have.”)
Fribo is also able to recognize sounds like the vacuum cleaning running or the microwave turning on. It uses an ultrasonic sensor to detect when you’re in the room as well as conditions like temperature, humidity, and lighting, as IEEE Spectrum reports. Additionally, Fribo can learn based on your activity. You can teach it to recognize recurring familiar sounds. (i.e. “I wonder what flavor of margarita your friend is currently blending.”)
Obviously, not everyone wants a robot pinging their friends every time they open the fridge. (And I’m sure my friends don’t need to know every time I am eating a pudding cup at 8 a.m., which is most days thank you so much for asking, I am fine.) Researchers told IEEE Spectrum they kept this in mind when designing the robot.
The message Fribo sends to your friends is anonymous. So, rather than saying “Mia is making a margarita” is just says “Your friend is making a margarita.” Then, if your friends are curious, they can knock to signal to Fribo that they’d like to know who is doing the aforementioned activity. You can also clap to signal that you “like” an activity a friend is doing, a slightly more real-life version of the a thumbs up on Facebook.
Researchers hope Fribo’s messages will prompt users to interact with each other rather than just survey what their friends are doing. Instead of simply living vicariously through your friends actions, Fribo is meant to serve as a connection mediator, motivating people to reach out.
For those specifically concerned about privacy, Fribo doesn’t record voices. Researchers say it also keeps information about private things like “bathroom related activities and phone conversation[s]” private. So, reassuring that this robot isn’t tracking every time you go pee.
Studies show that loneliness can take a toll on your physical and mental health. Not only can isolation lead to depression, research shows that feelings of loneliness have been linked to heart disease and even higher rates of death. While a robot that prompted connectivity may seem frivolous, it could literally be life-saving to some.
Fribo’s creators gave their friends robots to test out and the initial results were positive. “I can imagine what my friend is doing and I feel like we live in the same house, but in another room. It’s like sharing daily life activities with friends,” one person said.
Researchers recognize that the robot certainly isn’t for everyone and they aren’t sure how well it will perform outside of Korea. While Fribo isn’t currently available for sale, it doesn’t seem too far off from already available products like Alexa. And given Alexa’s propensity to maniacally laugh unprompted, perhaps a cute lil Fribo that just wants you to get in touch with your friends isn’t so bad.