Robots have been the source of much fascination for science fiction for a long time, and have revolutionized several manufacturing industries. But for the most part, even though the idea of personal or family robots, robots in the home, has been painted in many colours in science fiction and speculation in places like Popular Mechanics, what has been available in a consumer environment has been very limits.
Much of the limitation is based one one key point. What consumers would want in general is a robot that is both general purpose and aesthetically pleasing.
On the first point, robots in manufacturing are very specialized. You build a robot to do a task, a specific task. Even the more common home robots are like this, like vacuuming robots that only task is to clean the carpet, and to determine where things are so it isn’t bumping into everything. Very specialized. The computer industry of course took this same course. The revolutionary thing about Turing’s design was not that it was a computer, but that it was general purpose. A specific purpose computer is limited to only the tasks it was designed for. A general purpose, or programmable, computer opens up many new areas. Similarly, special purpose robots are innately limited, and this is more useful in industry than it is in homes. Building general purpose robots, though, especially ones that are of a useful size for home use, isn’t necessarily a simple task. Special purpose robots, like special purpose computers, are easier to design and build.
The second point is more easily addressed. Consumers want robots that look nice if they are going to be in their homes. Other parts of the tech industry show this is not something unique to robots. We don’t just buy things on function, we buy them on aesthetics. This is of course easily accomplished. There are many approaches possible, and many current companies have large teams that do just this. The requirements for a general purpose robot is more of an obstacle than aesthetics, though typically in tech, function comes first, so in many cases, the market won’t be realized until the function is there so the aesthetics can begin to be looked at.
All that being said, personal and home robots are not as far off as you might think. And some consideration on the implications as tech changes in other areas is an interesting discussion. Robots are basically the other side of the wearable tech coin, tech that is independent of the physical body of the user, verses tech that lives on that body.
I’d like to look at a few examples of robots that are close to or are ready for consumer use. Each was designed with specific goals in mind that are quite different, and the approach, design, and look of each takes this into account.
The Nixie is a bit more specific purpose than the others I’d like to look at, but if successful, I believe it will be expanded to be more versatile and general purpose. Quadcopters are big hype right now, and the applications for them are growing. Most are remote control, however, not robots in the independent sense. The Nixie is a bit more.
The Nixie is a small wearable quadcopter. It is designed to live on your wrist, but with physical motions to unwind from it, and to be launched into the air. Once launched, it finds you and snaps pictures or takes videos. Or at least I presume videos will be possible. It is a prototype at the moment. The Nixie won Intel’s Make It Wearable contest last month, and Intel provided enough funds for it to at least come close to being a viable product.
The prototype, predictably, is lacking on the aesthetics side, but conceptual images look quite nice. As I said, current design is very special purpose. It is designed to take third party pictures when no one is available and to take selfies, and the marketing seems to be focused on action sports and extreme sports, where traditional photography is difficult, and for the selfie craze.
While many might not consider the Nixie a robot, I include it because the automation, to me, qualifies it. As I stated, most quadcopters are remote controlled. The Nixie actually has logic to find the subject and take desired pictures without specific manipulation of location and action from a remote source.
Consider what other applications similar devices and robots could do, and especially think about how the technology in my other examples below could be applied to a Nixie type robot.
When I first saw KeepOn, it fascinated me. It still does. While there is a cheaper version, not as smart or versatile, the My KeepOn, the larger model, the KeepOn Pro, is the one that interests me. It is quite expensive currently, well outside most home user’s means. It is designed for research and for therapy applications.
The KeepOn has a few important features. First, it has facial recognition, not to recognize individual faces, but to identify what is a face and make eye contact. Second, it is responsive to music and touch. For music, it identifies a beat in the sounds it detects, and will dance to that beat. From touch, it makes sounds and moves, reminiscent of a pet when you pet it.
The KeepOn is not mobile. It relies on its base for the movements and mechanics, and must me moved between sites to function in a different local. It’s stationary.
The main application for this robot is for therapy, helping kids that don’t like eye contact to engage responsively, and to help teach kids to interact. It is built to resemble basically a yellow snowman, and moves and makes sounds in ways designed to catch children’s attention and hold it. It is in use in multiple places currently.
The JIBO is the most advanced viable consumer robot I’ve seen. It has been funded by pre-orders, and is currently in a phase working to get it out to those who pre-ordered it. It is larger than the KeepOn, and is mobile., not stationary.
The JIBO is being marketed as a social robot for the home, and as a family robot. The goal is a robot that people think not of as a tool or a device, but as a member of the family, to interact with and to feel is not just something in your life but a part of your life.
This robot responds to vocal commands and cues, can take pictures and video and can display things on its face, can move around the room, and recognizes the various family members.
It is uncertain if the videos are showing a working prototype, or if they are showing rendered concept art, though I’m inclined to think it’s a working prototype. If it is, aesthetically they have it down. It succeeds in feeling like a human in looks without trying to imitate a human. We’ll see what happens when it is fully released.
Conclusions and Thoughts
All three of these robots are unique and distinct, and are interesting technology. And all of them are first comers to their field us use. The technology used in them, the approach each takes, and the way they are designed to look are all things to note, especially as we look to the future of consumer robotics, both toward other unique ideas and toward the inevitable competition for these three robots.
Caer Illandria Enterprises