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

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Messaging app Line is launching its own range of digital assistant-powered smart speakers later this year

Concept images for Line’s Champ smart speaker
Image: Line

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, it 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 chick. (There’s a whole family of Line characters that are featured 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.

Line’s digital assistant Clova will let the speakers handle basic tasks like playing music and taking notes.
Image: Line

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.”

The Champ speaker range will be based on Line’s famous cartoon mascots.
Image: Line

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 chicken’s face.

The Face speaker is still in development.
Image: Line

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.”

Correction June 15th, 11:00AM ET: The story has been corrected to note that, according to Line, Sally is a chicken rather than a duck. The mistake is a common one, and Line has had to point this out on a number of occasions — see this fantastic video.