The Consumer Electronics Show is now in its 50th year and there are always key tech trends that define it. If you pay attention, you can see them coming. Two of the stars of CES 2016 were the ASUS Zenbo and the Intel-powered Segway Robot. It’s why we saw a rise of the robots at CES 2017.
The Mayfield Robotics Kuri ($699) is a case in point. This 20-inch high, foot-wide bot shows that a home robot has some intriguing potential. Thanks to its built-in microphone and speakers, it can react to voice commands, read stories and play music. So far, so Amazon Echo.
But unlike the Echo and other tabletop bots like Jibo, Kuri has a set of wheels like a robotic vacuum cleaner and can trundle around your home. Rather than buy several fixed security cameras to monitor your home, you could have one that can move from room to room. Add intelligent mapping, facial recognition and IFTTT support and Kuri isn’t just a pretty face.
UBTech’s Lynx robot takes a different tack, baking Amazon’s Alexa into a cute humanoid shell. It’s more than just an Amazon Echo with limbs, however. It’s designed to look and feel friendlier, combining poses and movements with facial recognition and motion detection. It keep an eye on your home, play your favourite music, even dance.
These two CES 2017 robots represent the two sides of home robotics — bots that can move and table-top bots that don’t. LG’s Hub Robot (below) falls into the latter category, a Jibo-style device that can “move and swivel in place, as well as express a wide range of emotions by displaying a face on its display.” Like UBTech’s Lynx, it gets its smarts from Amazon’s Alexa.
It’s not the only bot LG is working on. Its Airport Guide Robot will soon be helping travellers at Seoul’s Incheon International Airport; its Airport Cleaning Robot will prowl the concourses on the hunt for rubbish; while its Lawn Mowing Robot builds on the company’s HOM-BOT robo-vac technology to keep your garden looking trim.
Panasonic’s take on home robotics is more experimental. It’s egg-shaped ‘companion’ robot can move around like the Kuri, but it can also open up to reveal a built-in projector (a design eerily reminiscent of the pit droids in Star Wars: The Phantom Menace). A child-like voice and the projector work together to “deliver natural communication that builds a sense of attachment with its human owner,” says the company.
Can we have a relationship with a machine? The CES 2017 robots will need to do more than tell us the weather, switch on a light and crack a digital smile. They need a personality. The makers of Olly, a donut-shaped tabletop speaker/robotic assistant, have taken this on board. Not only will Olly be able to respond to voice commands (like Alexa), but it will adapt its behaviour to suit who its users are, speaking faster or slower, louder or quieter.
Robots need to have some useful purpose. Otherwise, companies are asking us to invest $700 in a digital toy. It’s why we might see bots like Cutii take off first. It might look like an iPad on wheels, but it’s designed specifically to help senior citizens stay connected to their friends and families.
It’s early days for home robots. Like smartwatches, it’s not entirely clear what some of them are for. Or if we even need them. Some of the features we’ve seen so far lend themselves to home entertainment, smart home control and voice-activated Internet access. But is that enough? This should be the year where we find out.