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This Furry, Robotic Puppet Comforts Your Crying Baby While You Drive

About two years ago, I was in a car with my best friend and her toddler. She was driving, and I was sitting in the back next to her 10-month-old, who was tucked into his car seat. For a while, the ride was smooth—then the baby burst into tears. We tried every common trick to comfort him. I contorted my face into the silliest of poses, my friend burst into a catchy song, but our efforts were met with louder wails until finally—mercifully!—we pulled into my friend’s driveway and she was able to scoop her son up in her arms.

This scenario, minus the useless friend in the back, is probably familiar for many parents who drive alone with their young children. And it is the reason why Japanese automaker Nissan is developing a peculiar puppet to relieve backseat tantrums. It’s called Iruyo, which translates to “I’m here” in Japanese.

The fuzzy babysitter, which gives off big Elmo vibes, is in fact two puppets: “big Iruyo,” which is strapped to the backrest of the backseat, facing the baby; and “little Iruyo,” which sits in the driver’s cup holder. Big Iruyo does most of the work. When prompted by specific voice commands spoken by the parent, big Iruyo can wave its hands, cover its eyes for a game of peek-a-boo, or clap its hands as the parent sings.

Left Baby in car seat looking at furry toy. Right. Parent driving in the front.
Photograph: Nissan

A Bot for Tots

Rear-facing child seats are significantly safer than their front-facing counterparts, but they come with an inevitable flaw: you can’t see your child’s face while driving. That’s why Big Iruyo also comes with a built-in camera to monitor your child’s face. When your baby’s eyes are closed for longer than three seconds, big Iruyo will assume they are asleep and will convey the message to little Iruyo, which will in turn close its eyes to mirror your little one. When your baby reopens their eyes, little Iruyo will do the same—like a high-tech game of monkey see, monkey do.

Iruyo was designed by Tokyo ad agency TBWAHakuhodo, in collaboration with Nissan as well as one of Japan’s largest retail chains specializing in baby products, Akachan Honpo. The project started as a marketing campaign for Nissan’s sensing technology used in its driver-assistance system. For example, some auto models like the Nissan Ariya use a combination of radar sensors and front-facing cameras to continuously assess your environment and automate some of your driving, so you can take your hands off the wheel and feet off the pedals on a freeway.

Iruyo uses similar camera tech to assess your baby’s face and assist you with babysitting. TBWA assures me the robot’s camera only detects eye movement, which the company says should mitigate any privacy concerns associated with capturing full facial expressions.

Baby giggling in car seat looking at furry toy
Photograph: Nissan

The team says Nissan had no intention of commercializing the puppet at first, but its initial launch campaign was so successful (it has generated the equivalent of nearly $2.3 million in ad exposure) that Nissan’s marketing executives decided to take it to the next level and bring the puppet to the market. TBWA estimates that the toy will be available for purchase sometime next year. The price is not yet determined, but Iruyo will be available to buy even if you don’t drive a Nissan.

Help on the Way

Robotic nannies, or “companion robots,” have been cozying up to humans for years, and recent advances in robotics and sensing tech have stoked their popularity. In 2017, Toyota launched Kirobo Mini, a tiny robot it described as a “communication partner,” which could, among other things, tell you if your car is low on gas. (Despite the fanfare surrounding the launch, Kirobo Mini was discontinued one year later, hinting, perhaps, at its true role as a marketing stunt.) In 2020 came Moxie, a cute, 20-inch-tall robot that resembled a Teletubby and wanted to be your child’s best pal. And in 2021, we met Snorble, a robot buddy that looked like the ghost emoji and let you, among other things, develop a customized bedtime routine for your child.

These toys and the dozens of others like them could never rival the warmth, wisdom, and companionship of a human. But Iruyo’s makers believe their bot could at least make a car ride more joyful for kids—and less stressful for parents.

Based on those findings, the team developed a prototype puppet inspired by Japan’s kawaii, or “cute,” culture. They worked with professors from the Kitasato University Faculty of Health Sciences who specialize in cognitive behavioral psychology for children up to 18 months old. These researchers learned that it takes time for babies’ eyesight to fully mature and that it gradually improves over the first few months of their life. This led to the decision to give Iruyo big round eyes, a bright red color, and the ability to wave its arms nice and wide.

“The users of Iruyo are babies, right? So the most important thing was that babies love it,” says Kenshiro Suzuki, a senior creative director at TBWA/Hakuhodo.

Image may contain Plush Toy Teddy Bear Animal and Bird
Photograph: Nissan

The first iteration of the puppet came with a mouth and a little fang sticking out from it. “We thought it was cute,” says Kyoko Yonezawa, head of innovation at TBWA/Hakuhodo. But in a later survey, where 11 families came to try out a prototype inside a full-size model of a car at an Akachan Honpo store, many babies expressed their clear disapproval with tears.

After the survey, the team redesigned the puppet to make its hands longer and making the waving gesture bigger, while completely removing the mouth. If Hello Kitty didn’t need lips to take over the world, why should Iruyo?

For now, the little and big Iruyo prototypes are connected to each other by a physical wire, but the goal is for them to communicate wirelessly. TBWA says none of the collected data will be kept on file, and Iruyo will meet the latest privacy protection standards.

Whether Nissan’s fuzzy puppet will become a favorite copilot among single parents or fade into oblivion as just another punch line in the annals of parenting mishaps will likely depend on people’s appetite for experimentation. It’s also too early to know whether Iruyo will even make it to market, considering the stringent regulatory requirements associated with a car accessories that could pose a threat to driving. TBWA didn’t conduct any crash tests, but a spokesperson said Nissan carried out performance tests to verify the system’s safety and to ensure that big Iruyo doesn’t block the rearview mirror and that little Iruyo doesn’t distract the driver.

In an age of overconsumption, it’s worth asking how necessary this kind of toy is. But one thing is certain: Desperate parents will try anything to comfort their crying baby.