If working in robotics for the last 15 years has taught Mayfield Robotics CTO Kaijen Hsiao anything, it's that as the market for home robots evolves, so will consumer expectations. Those expectations are centered not only on technological capabilities, but also on a home robot’s personality and the overall experience of interactions. Currently, home robotics is perceived in the context of either some sort of digitized assistant or a simple, utilitarian tool for cleaning. But Kuri, an “insanely cute and useful” personal robot, leaves the user feeling like home robots are commonplace, friendly and welcoming.
The concept of the home robot is still new to most people. When asked to imagine a home robot, most people either think of robot vacuum cleaners or fictional robots like Rosie, the robot maid from “The Jetsons.” While digital assistive technologies such as Alexa, Siri, or Google Assistant are no longer a new concept, robotic assistance in the home beyond cleaning still is. Recently, however, there has been an eruption of potential new home robots, specifically in the home assistant / companion space. This blooming of robotic technology in the home is the result of recent technological breakthroughs, and also sets the stage for what the next five years of home robots will look like, including more focus on a robot’s personality.
How We Got Here
The last five years have seen huge improvements in three key areas of robotics. The first is lowered cost and availability of key components. With parts becoming cheaper, useful home assistant robots that can navigate around your home and be aware of their surroundings can finally be made at a price point that is attractive to a wider consumer market. The second is speech recognition technology, which has finally reached a point where users can reliably and consistently issue commands to home robots directly. Finally, advances in vision, and in particular deep-learning-based vision, have recently enabled robots to be aware of people and pets around them, thus setting the stage for compelling interactions between humans and robots that grant robots the appearance of personality.
The Future of Home Robotics: Personality and Character
At this point in time, robot capabilities such as mapping and navigation are still more difficult to implement than voice recognition capabilities. But we are starting to see such capabilities becoming commoditized and more affordable. In the next five years, the increased availability of vision-based navigation will lower the barriers to entry in the home robot space. At that point, the market is likely to become much more crowded, and the major factor that determines the success or failure of individual robots will be personality.
We at Mayfield like to say that we make joyful, useful and inspiring robots—and all three of those features are equally important. Kuri needs to be useful to earn a place in your home, but we also hope that she will inspire others to both create more robots like her and to be interested in STEM fields even from an early age. But perhaps most importantly, for her acceptance in your home and in daily life, she needs to provide joy.
A great deal of care went into creating Kuri’s personality, something that few other robots have explored in depth. Anki's Cozmo is one exception; their fun little toy robot showed personality to be critical in eliciting a positive reaction from consumers. We’re seeing that the capabilities of a robot are important, but even more important are the emotional interactions that take place between robots and humans. As the technology improves, cost lowers, and consumer expectation increases, home robots will ultimately become a form of art and entertainment.
Opportunities in Robotics
The creation of relevant, useful, and personality-filled home robots will demand talented professionals, and not just roboticists and engineers. Think of it like video games: the amount of time, energy and work that goes into creating one is staggering, and yet the most amazing visual effects ever invented can’t save a game if the story isn't good or the characters look creepy as they move. Creative types, animators and industrial designers will be needed not just to create more complex and functional robots, but to create and deliver a new form of entertainment. The home robot will be not just a capable assistant, but something with personality—life-like, a companion in the home that you actually like having around.
(Top image: Kuri, the home robot companion, is available for pre-order for Holiday 2017. Courtesy: Mayfield Robotics.)
Kaijen Hsiao is the Chief Technology Officer of Mayfield Robotics, a well-funded consumer robotics company headquartered in Redwood City, California. This position has been the hallmark of her career: opening up new capabilities of robotics technology, with particular attention on shared autonomous teleoperation, imitation learning, tactile grasp adjustment, human-aware navigation and, most recently, robot mapping and localization.
All views expressed are those of the author.