June 04, 2012      
Cocorobo vacuum robot

Another robotic vacuum cleaner is about to hit the market courtesy of Japanese electronics manufacturer Sharp.

On May 8th, Sharp Electronics announced that it was making its new Cocorobo product available in Japan beginning in June, to be joined by China and other Asian nations in the following months.

A US and European launch is still in the planning stages according to Sharp, with no release date given. The announcement can be found here, although it suffers badly from the Chinese menu translation problem thanks to Google Translate. The gadget press were all over the announcement (here, here and here). What the postings lacked in depth, they made up for with enthusiasm (?plucky robot that jabbers?, ?clean from the comfort of your sofa!?).

It was interesting to note that even the gadget media was wary of a robotic sweeper that is to carry a price tag of $1,500 ($1,000 for the less capable model). I share their unease. The product is priced to fail, at least in terms of large scale adoption. However, I do not share the belief of many others that low cost is the only way to go for robotic vacuum cleaners.

It will be possible to develop consumer-class robotics cleaning systems that can command a premium price (and premium margins), but now is not the time, and the Cocorobo is not the product. Why this is so provides insights into the ways the robotics vacuum cleaner market developed over time and what is required for large-scale adoption.

Cocorobo Basics

It will be possible to develop consumer-class robotics cleaning systems that can command a premium price (and premium margins), but now is not the time, and the Cocorobo is not the product.

Sharp marketers invented the name Cocorobo by combining the Japanese words for ?heart? (kokoro) and ?robot?. The implication is clear, Cocorobo is more than just a robotic tool. It is something closer to the heart. It is the vacuum you love and the vacuum that loves you. With Cocorobo the loving begins with its natural language processing features.

According to Sharp, the device can recognize and respond to simple voice commands in several languages including Japanese (two accents), English, and Chinese. Oddly enough, the robot?s voice recognition future shuts off while it is moving.

Cocorobo?s language capabilities are very rudimentary, although the robot can be controlled by voice (or by a remote control). The device also can communicate with its owner, responding when spoken to with a collection of light flashes and stock phrases (36 in all). In one video, Cocorobo is asked ?How are you doing?,? to which it replies, ?I need a break!?. That?s not much love, but to its credit Cocorobo will reply more often and with greater enthusiasm if you communicate with it regularly.

According to Sharp, Cocorobo?s natural processing engine was developed by Raytron, a Japanese technology and engineering services firm that also produces consumer robotics products. Raytron is affiliated with the Robot Laboratory, an Osaka, Japan based business development group (Osaka is a noted robotics ?cluster?).

Cocorobo incorporates the Cocoro Engine, reports Sharp, an artificial intelligence software designed to facilitate communication between the robots and their owners. Sharp has indicated that they intend to incorporate similar functionality in other types of consumer products.

Cocorobo also boasts of a 1.3 megapixel camera with 640×480 resolution, a front mounted LED light and Wi-Fi support.

Android and iOS based smartphones can be employed as a wireless controller using apps provided by Sharp (apps coming soon). Using the onboard camera, Cocorobo can take four photos at 90 degree intervals to provide a 360 degree panorama of its surroundings which can be viewed via smartphones.

Video can also be streamed to smartphones from the on-board camera as the robot is driven about or as it goes about its work autonomously.

Sharp notes that Cocorobo incorporates the company?s Plasmacluster Ion technology, a method of reducing odors by emitting positive and negative ions. The technology supposedly also deactivates bacteria, mould, and mite allergens suspended in the air.

Like other vacuuming robots, Cocorobo cleans using a combination of side brushes and a rotating brush. It does differ from many other types of mobile vacuums in that the device includes a turbo fan running at 14,000 RPM to provide suction (a true, but limited vacuum).

Cocorobo does not provide intelligent navigation, instead relying a random pattern approach employed by other robotics vacuum makers. This is not unusual. Not all robot vacuums support navigation and mapping, offering smart algorithms and redundant, random vacuuming in its place (the jury is still out on which methods perform best). Cocorobo can clean carpeted floors, which some robotic vacuums are not designed to do. TTI?s Dirt Devil and products specifically designed for the Asian market, such as LG?s Hom-Bot, fall into this category.

Cocorobo comes in two flavors. The fully loaded RX-V100 is expected to price in at $1,630, while the RX-V80 version, which lacks the camera and language capabilities, will cost $1,100.

Vision of the Future

During the press event announcing Cocorobo, Sharp General Manager, Jitsuo Sakamoto, noted that the company intends to provide hardware that links into the Cocorobo?s USB port so that the robot can communicate with other devices within the home. Mr. Sakamoto continued, saying that Cocorobo could then act as a controller for other household electronic devices such as television sets, lights and other home electronics. Presumably, Cocorobo will control the other devices through smart phone apps.

Commodity Consumer Electronics

retro vacuum

Sharp?s vision of a future household where intelligent, friendly devices are nexuses of control and interaction for the smart home is compelling, but not without precedent.

Poster sessions at robotics academic events have laid out similar visions for a decade or so, especially in Japan. Personable home electronics’ control devices already have come to market and more are forthcoming (Raytron?s Chapit and Violet?s Kartoz come to mind).

Sharp?s incorporation of low-cost, commodity consumer electronics’ add-ons into Cocorobo is an imitative strategy.

For example, this approach has been utilized by smart-toy manufacturers, including those producing robotics products. Many robotic smart toys can be networked to the Internet, and some are also embedded with low-cost consumer electronics technology such as MP3 players and webcams. WowWee Robotics? RS Media and Rovio products exemplify the trend.

Leapfrogging Features

The vacuum marketplace continually evolves. The very earliest cylinder vacuum cleaners saw the advent of upright vacuum cleaners, followed by wet and dry vacs, and on to handhelds. These have now been joined by stick vacuum cleaners and mobile robotic systems.

Robotic vacuums themselves have evolved. To the original systems consisting of sweepers with bump sensors, all providers of robotic vacuum cleaners, such as Phillips, Neato Robotics, Samsung, iRobot, Toshiba, Infinuvo, and others have added support for some combination of the following:

  • Automatic height adjustment
  • Disentanglement capability
  • Anti-collision sensors
  • Position sensors
  • Intelligent cleaning routes
  • Virtual walls
  • Dust and allergen filtration / HEPA filters
  • Odor neutralization
  • Remote control
  • Longer battery life, quicker recharge
  • Auto docking and recharging
  • Step/drop avoidance sensors
  • UV sterilization
  • Increased bin capacity
  • Programmable scheduling
  • Pet/workshop optimized versions
  • Noise reduction
  • Upgradable software
  • Automatic power saving
  • Multi-mode cleaning (spot cleaning, large areas, multiple passes etc.)
  • Multiple floor types (carpet, parquet, laminate, tiles etc.)
  • Dirt detection feature
  • Edge cleaning/wall following
  • Intelligent navigation and absolute mapping
  • Cameras and webcams

You can be sure that most of Sharp?s robotic vacuum competitors will incorporate commodity, consumer electronics technology into their products (if they have not done so already). The technology is cheap and the technological barriers low. This incremental approach will continue with players leapfrogging each other with new functionality.

Overpriced

Sources at Sharp said that the company plans to produce approximately 4,000 Cocorobo RX-V100s per month and 6,000 of the version that cannot speak. These numbers are approximately the same as other newly released, similarly priced robotic floor cleaners such as the Toshiba Smarbo.

The vision of interconnected, communicating smart devices is compelling, and one which will surely be realized in some manner in the future (the Internet of things anyone?). Still, the question must be asked, what does this have to do with floor cleaning? The same holds for picture taking and streaming video. Moreover, Sharp has yet to offer a full blown architecture for interconnecting and controlling devices. It is a vision in name only.

In their product videos and announcements, Sharp notes that their vacuums could be used to check on pets when away from home or to look for car keys under couches (using the LED light, naturally). These usage vignettes are similar to those offered by suppliers of home telepresence systems where mobile robots are used to check on irons that have been left unplugged–no matter that irons have been shutting themselves off for the past twenty years! The phrase ?technologies in search of a market? comes to mind.

Features Versus Core Functionality

The vision of interconnected, communicating smart devices is compelling, and one which will surely be realized in some manner in the future (the Internet of things anyone?)

Admittedly, Cocorobo?s Plasmacluster Ion technology does address customer calls for allergen removal, a real demand trend that has been confirmed by robust market research (research that all manufacturers purchase).

The features listed earlier were also substantiated by demand-side research. But with each new wave of robotic cleaners, the addition of new core functionality becomes that much more difficult. For the robotic vacuum cleaner market, the “low-hanging-features fruit” has been plucked.

With Cocorobo, Sharp has added special features of limited or peripheral use based on cheap, commodity technology because they can, instead of because they should. Moreover, they are asking consumers to pay a premium price for it. The result will be that the Cocorobo will remain limited to holiday impulse buys or as purchases by technology early adopters.

Put another way, you can pick up three Dyson DC25 Ball vacuums (or multiple robotic cleaners from iRobot, Neato and others), for the price of one Cocorobo. Then again, the DC25 does not include 36 canned responses when you speak to it. It simply cleans floors exceedingly well.

Dyson as a Model

The news for robotic vacuum cleaner manufacturers is not all bad. The vacuum cleaner market is large and growing. The release of a new line of robotic cleaners by a leading consumer electronics company signals that the market is robust. Also, it is possible to introduce high-priced, high-margin consumer devices into a mature market. Dyson, again, provides an example. The company came into a market populated by many longstanding, successful companies. Dyson?s vacuums were priced many times that of its competitors, yet won over consumers with superior technology (the first real redesign of vacuums in over a century).

The company simply did a better job at what vacuums are designed to do?. clean floors.

Dyson vacuum

Speaking of Dyson, it is interesting to note that as a major vacuum manufacturer, particularly one noted for innovation and design, they have not released a robotic product to market. The company repeatedly has said that they will not do so until they can deliver a robotic vacuum that works as advertised and will not damage the Dyson brand. Clearly, the company does not think very highly of the current crop of robotic offerings.

Time for a Reboot

It has been ten years since iRobot launched the Roomba series of robotic vacuum cleaners. Since that time mobile vacuums have made huge strides, adding functionality and improving capabilities. But concomitant with an expanding feature set is a reduction in new types of functionality that can be easily added and still be of value to the consumer.

The addition of low cost consumer electronics functionality, a la Cocorobo, does not warrant the product?s high cost. However, it is possible to develop high-cost, high-margin robotic vacuum cleaners using the Dyson model as a guide. Namely, innovate using a combination of common sense, creativity and technology to again reinvent the home vacuum cleaner. A good start would be to add functionality that allows mobile systems to become the primary cleaning technology in the home. Currently, robotic vacuums are adjuncts to more powerful uprights and canister models (along with stick cleaners).

A back-of-the-envelope exercise for new mobile vacuum cleaner features, some warranting a higher price and some not, include:

  • Dramatically improved battery functionality (increased battery life, better reliability, no battery reset procedures etc.)
  • Reduced cleaning and maintenance requirements
  • Increased operating time
  • Self-emptying bins
  • Strong suction providing powerful, deep cleaning (a true vacuum delivering forceful cleaning power)
  • Cyclonic technology
  • Ties into central vacuuming systems
  • Multi-robot systems
  • Manipulation capabilities
  • Links to security and health management services firms
  • Sharp?s Cocorobo adds commodity consumer electronics functionality to a robotic vacuum cleaner. It is not a path to higher prices and higher margins, or a path to success, although such a path does exist.

    Dan Kara is president of Electra Studios and analyst-at-large for Robotics Business Review. He can be reached at [email protected]