Is robotics just around the corner?
Weren’t you getting just a tad sick of hearing that “just around the corner” stuff? Fact is, for what seemed like the longest time, it worked.
It bordered on the embarrassing to see robotics engineers stopped in their tracks and almost nodding in agreement when that line was spouted from podiums at conferences and meetings. It was like the hammer of truth for which there was no possible retort. Suddenly, it’s gone.
Something happened on the way to the future to change all that nonsense, and it was never more in evidence than at this year’s Consumer Electronics Show 2015 (CES).
There was a palpable self-awareness, self-assurance, and drive in the air from the robotics contingent that expressed itself with energy and conviction — plus good robots. Robots that were well-designed, well-engineered, and looked cool. The show featured machines that most anyone would want to own.
See related: Consumer Robotics Gets ‘Personal’ at CES 2015
A stroll amid the throng of attendees in the Robotics Marketplace with its three-dozen expo booths sporting all manner of robots was an easy enough place to see this new sense of vitality.
Sure, there were a few deadhead exhibitors sprinkled through the robotics venue who thought consumer robotics of any utility at all was still “a long way off.” Guess that’s to be expected. But they were so rare and so obviously wrong thinking that they tended to self-marginalize themselves.
Isn’t that refreshing?
Lowe’s, the “Let’s do something” retailer was there with a skyscraper pavilion for its Lowe’s Innovation Labs? OSHbot retail robot. OSHbot (a reference to Orchard Supply Hardware, a subsidiary of Lowe’s) worked this holiday season helping customers navigate the arcane world of finding hardware supplies at an Orchard’s San Jose, Calif., store.
OSHbot was built in conjunction with Fellow Robots (originally in 2012 called 9th Sense Robotics; name change in 2013) and Singularity University. The very energetic and very bright Marco Mascorro, CEO and CTO of Fellow Robots, was there to put OSHbot through its paces, both in English and Spanish. “We’e got Mandarin, French, and Japanese waiting in the wings,”he said.
Mascorro typifies robotics new-found self-assurance and drive. If the movement needs a poster boy to be the face of robotics for 2015, then Moscorro is it in spades.
The reason for the new robotics of self-assurance he puts down to a couple of things, mainly working in teams that include the end user in all phases of development. And also that robotics companies are working smarter to find end users before going into the lab.
In his case, Singularity University prospects for end users with knotty problems that have a clear robot solution, especially one for a retail robot like OSHbot. Success like that with Lowe’s gets quickly noticed by other retailers, and getting noticed is how great businesses are built.
With such a solid team, “we?re not just a bunch of smart guys in our lab working on things we ‘think’ will have a market. We know. And once the problem is clearly defined like that, we’re confident that we can solve it. It took us just 10 months — 10 grueling months! to get OSHbot to Lowe’s.
Technology is also key, he says. Advances in batteries, miniaturization, digitization and Moore’s Law (stuff right out of The Second Machine Age) are finally hitting the sweet spot for robotics, and all of it is getting poured into machines like OSHbot.
Success like that of Fellow Robots is infectious and motivates others. Newbies to the Robot Marketplace can look over and point to OSHbot as a class leader for all of them. The formula for success is right there in the Robotics Marketplace for all to see. It didn?t go unnoticed.
Korea’s Future Robot was in the house as well sporting its line of FURo robots: a sleek-looking line of some half-dozen robots of varying capabilities as advertising and helper robots for aiding travelers at airports to knee-high and tabletop-sized robots for the home front and domestic use, or as CK Song, Future Robot’s founder and CEO, put it “for connecting families” separated and time stressed by hectic schedules.
“I just took a large order for my FURo-i,” he enthused, while sitting back in a comfortable couch at his spacious, modern-home-themed expo area. “From a mass merchandiser,” he added with a grin of elation. “We’ve been selling our robots worldwide for a while now, but this sale is our first to such a large retailer.”
Even old-line industrial robot maker ABB was there, for the very first time. Industrial big boys like KUKA, Yaskawa, or Staubli are never at CES. Makers of robots for heavy industry feel their wares have no real place amidst two square miles of consumer electronics.
Aware that times are changing fast and wanting to get in on the action, ABB reserved a large section of the Robot Marketplace to exhibit its RoboScreen system on an IRB 120 industrial robot equipped with integrated vision. RoboScreen?s designer, Andy Flessas, the founder and president of Robotic Arts, was there to demo his creation.
Education, digital signage and to interest electronics manufacturers in the IRB120 were the avowed interests they gave for the first-time visit. In essence, this multi-billion dollar conglomerate was blindly prospecting CES for new markets.
If ABB had thought to make its way downstairs to the conference room in Casanova 602 for the half-day conference session on robotics, it could have gained a lot of insight — and more than a few new customers. That’s where the business development managers from fellow conglomerates like Sumitomo and NEC were in attendance.
Heretofore never in the robotics space at all, Sumitomo and NEC, among others, were there angling to get aboard. Each had new business managers on the prowl. NEC confessed to having built a robot years ago (and in secret) but quickly abandoned it. Now, however, it has reevaluated robotics and wants in again. A partner or partners to do just that was their quest.
Sumitomo’s plastics division was hungrily looking at the plastics that encased all those lustrous robots whizzing around them in the Robotics Marketplace. They were on the hunt for opportunities, claimed its new business development manager.
Robotics at CES for 2015 has now matured into an interesting place of opportunity on the consumer home front as well as with consumer-facing robots on the retail front.
The next Consumer Electronics Show, in 2016, could well be the defining moment when consumer robots take up residence and stamp the annual Las Vegas event as the worldwide mecca for all things consumer robotics.
See related: The Age of Exo Has Descended at CES 2015