Japan’s answer to the Amazon Echo comes in ‘bear’ or ‘duck’

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Western tech giants aren’t the only ones trying to get users to talk to their computers — Japanese messaging giant Line is also getting involved. Earlier this year the company announced it would be building a digital assistant and smart speaker, and today, at its annual conference in Tokyo, unveiled new details about the products.

The basic functionality of Line’s smart speaker range is similar to Google Home and Amazon Echo. You can play music, make lists, set alarms and so forth. But the Line has a secret weapon: cuteness. At the top of the page you can see a pair of the company’s speakers based on two of its popular mascots: Brown (the bear), and Sally (the duck). (There’s a whole family of Line characters who feature on various forms of merchandise, from stickers to themed cafes.) These images aren’t final, but Line has confirmed that a number of these “casual and more portable” cartoon smart speakers will be available Winter 2017.

The company’s flagship speaker will be the Wave (above), which is scheduled to go on sale in Japan this Autumn for ¥15,000 ($ 136). Like the company’s other speakers, the Wave will be powered by Line’s voice-activated digital assistant Clova. With Clova, users can maintain calendars and to-do lists, get information from the web, control smart home gadgets, and “even engage in casual conversations.”

As is the case with Apple’s HomePod, Line is also using its smart speakers to encourage adoption of its music streaming service, Line Music. The company is also working on a third smart speaker with a built-in screen, although it’s not clear how this will be used. A concept image below, shows what could be animated version of Sally the cartoon duck’s face.

With the launch of its speakers and digital assistant, Line is looking to move beyond its roots and expand its reach across Asia. (Clova will be capable of talking in both Japanese and Korean.) The company’s messaging app is dominant in only a handful of countries, and although it can handle a variety of tasks — including reading the news, finding jobs, and hailing taxis — Line thinks that after the smartphone boom has died down, AI services will be the next big thing.

“There is a shift toward toward post-smartphone, post-touch technologies,” Line CEO Takeshi Idezawa told Bloomberg earlier this year. “These connected devices will permeate even deeper into our daily lives and therefore must even closer match the local needs, languages, and cultures.”

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