Pittsburgh start-up Bossa Nova Robotics is best known in the robotics industry as the developer of the Prime-8 and Penbo smart toys. While these products have not been formally released in the United States just yet, they were announced in July 2009 and then showcased at the New York toy fair in January 2010. The highly videogenic ‘bots made a huge splash on the Web, although not quite as much as the Toy Industry Association’s 2010 Toy of the Year winner, Cepia, LLC’s Zhu Zhu pet hamsters. Prime-8 and Penbo will be available in North American stores beginning in 2010, although they can be purchased through online retailers Amazon and Robotshop.
In a recent interview that can be seen on YouTube’s Robotics Trends Channel, Sarjoun Skaff, CEO of Bossa Nova Robotics, describes his company’s business and product strategy, as well as his vision for future smart toys. In an interesting turn of events, Skaff also goes on to describe his company’s future efforts toward the eventual development of a personal robot. He is clear and correct in his belief that the road to the development of a personal robotics market begins with toys.
The term “personal robot” is widely used in robotics circles, and much like the word robot itself, definitions vary widely. That as a class personal robots often go under different names–including companion robots (Japan), network robots (Korea), social robots, and personal service robots to name but a few–only adds to the confusion. But to paraphrase U.S. Supreme Court justice Potter Stewart’s characterization of pornography (“I know it when I see it”; Jacobellis v. Ohio, 1964), those in the robotics industry “know personal robots when they see them,” although they may refer to them by any number of names.
Broadly speaking, personal robots are a class of mostly humanoid robots designed to act as helpmates for humans often as a mobile control center of sorts for electronic devices, primarily in the home. Models are also designed to provide a friendly interface to information sources (weather and traffic updates, reminders, phone calls, etc.) and household services.
Japan and Korea are best known for the production of personal robot prototypes and the few commercial versions (very few) that are available. Features common to personal robots such as Hitachi’s EMIEW2, Mitsubishi Heavy Industries’ Wakamaru, Fujitsu’s enon, NEC’s PaPero, and Yujin Robotics’ iRobi include facial detection, recognition, and tracking, and the ability to communicate with, and be controlled by, consumer electronic devices such as cell phones. Speech recognition and voice synthesizers with a substantial vocabulary are also available in some models, while context-sensitive conversation is rare.
I applaud the efforts by the companies mentioned above and others (again, mostly in Korea and Japan) to create personal robot products. Also, the aesthete and engineer in me appreciate the high quality of craftsmanship represented by these systems. Still, I believe the course they have undertaken to develop commercially viable personal robot products (and a personal robotics market), namely, the addition of advanced features and functions to high-end, high-priced robots of limited functionality, is simply wrongheaded. Like Bossa Nova’s Skaff, I believe the correct approach for the development of personal robots (and the market as well) entails the incremental addition of increasingly advanced functionality to robotic smart toys. Here’s why:
- Lack of an existing market. At this time, there is no market for personal robots in the home. In a manner similar to the very first home computers, a market for personal robotics must develop organically over time as compelling applications, low prices and increasing functionality converge to drive market acceptance. Moreover, for psychographic drivers such as peer approval, fanship, and impulse buying to kick in and trigger purchase decisions, some degree of market penetration, even if it is very minor, must exist.
- High price. Mobility, navigation, speech, vision, and intelligence all come at a price–often a high one. Because of limited functionality and a lack of compelling applications, sales of personal robots will be limited only to the earliest of early adopters.
- No compelling applications. One function of personal robotics systems is the provision of a natural, mobile interface to information and services. At this time, “services” are totally lacking and information is readily and easily available from a massive market of low-cost devices such as cell phones, computers, netbooks, televisions, and soon tablets.
- Limited functionality. For all of their technical prowess, existing personal robot prototypes do not provide any real functionality over and above limited mobility, rudimentary support for speech and vision, and access to Web-based information sources. The robotics industry is simply not at the point where autonomous, mobile, multitasking personal robots for use in the home can be realistically deployed. You will notice that I have said nothing about natural language interfaces or emotive interactions. Yet this is exactly the type of functionality that the “personal” in personal robotics implies.
A better approach for developing personal robots, and a personal robot market, is to build on an existing market–say, robotic smart toys–whose products offer proven functionality (like entertainment and education) and are priced to sell. With each new release cycle, these simple robotic toys will evolve to provide greater capabilities, while increasing only slightly in price (today, low-cost robotic smart toys can be networked to the Internet, while others include low-cost consumer electronics technology such as media players, webcams, and cameras).
Over time, consumers will become increasingly accustomed to robotics technology in the home and paying for advanced robotic functionality. Other robotics enabling technology, as well as standards and network infrastructure, will also advance over this period. In this manner, the market for personal robots, and the technology that allows them to deliver value worthy of their price, develops organically.