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Amazon told us all about Astro

Amazon's VP of devices discusses privacy, accessories and what comes next for this thousand-dollar rolling companion.

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Amazon's Astro is a home robot and surveillance system in one.

Amazon has a rolling, rolly-eyed, telescoping-camera-equipped robot named Astro coming later this year. The questions we have about it are endless. It's Amazon's first full home robot, but according to Amazon at its latest product event Tuesday, it won't be the last. Already Astro is raising a lot of questions: How does it address privacy? How much could Astro evolve? What is it actually for? (And, is this a future you want?)

I spoke with Amazon VP of Devices Charlie Tritschler to ask some follow-up questions about the robot... and what could come next after it (Amazon's already hinted at an Astro 2).

Amazon thinks Astro will succeed where others failed

Tritschler points to Astro's clear roles as a home surveillance robot and a communications device as its road to success, possibly leading a second wave of home robots. That, and tapping into existing Amazon services. "We thought about what are the key use cases that we saw from doing our research, to what we heard back from beta testers. As they used the product, there were three key areas that rose to the top. The first is home monitoring. But even within home monitoring, there are really two pieces to home monitoring: There's the security aspect, 'How do I protect my home to keep it safe?' But there's also the home monitoring aspect of being able to check in remotely on the people and pets and things in your home that you might want to look at."

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Amazon expects to tackle home acceptance with boundaries, user feedback

A home environment for robots is still a big challenge, and Tritschler suggests that the home testing by early owners of Astro is going to be a big part of Amazon's learning process, compared with what Amazon's previous industrial robots were doing in fulfillment centers. "Amazon robotics was very focused on helping the fulfillment centers be more efficient, a very fixed kind of activity. And there's no such thing as a prototypical home, you know, every home is different. Even within the home, it changes all the time, whether it's people putting something down in what was a clear path 5 minutes ago, [or something else,] and we're asked to figure out how to navigate around that."

Tritschler explains how Astro starts to scan a home: "When you get it out of the box, part of the setup is you let it explore the home to look for waypoints, trying to understand how the house is laid out, where the doorways are, how to navigate around couches, etc. It creates that map automatically for you. And then you take it on a home tour. And you literally go through the house saying, Astro, this is the dining room as far as the kitchen, so that it understands where those rooms are."

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In patrolling mode, the periscope camera can go pretty high.

Amazon

Rooms can be set to be off-limits, and Astro can be told to go away, but understanding the relationship with the robot in the home might take work. There's also a mute button on top that will turn off the robot's microphone and sensors.

Meanwhile, Astro's ability to allow others to "stream in" if invited, perhaps to check on a loved one, means checking for a green LED light when it's streaming a live video view to someone else's phone. "One of the things we learned in our early beta tests is people wanted to know what it's doing. We've got indicators on the device that light up when it's streaming," Tritschler says. A stream can be ended instantly if needed. But, much like Facebook's recording-enabled Ray-Ban glasses, that means paying attention to whether Astro is in the room and glowing green.

Astro's eyes are the window to its robot soul

Astro's cartoonlike personality was intended to win people over, but also show the robot's intent. "It was inspired by some of our early testers as they used the product. Any time you have something that moves around your home, people will anthropomorphize it," Tritschler says of adding personality to Astro. "We tried a number of different things, and eyes were the best way to do it. We looked at the cues from animation principles, how robots are shown in films and cartoons and TV shows. When we looked at the top 100 robots, all the robots that people like, only five of them didn't have eyes. It really is a universal communication tool."

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The eyes may look cute, but they're also indicating what will happen next.

Amazon

The eyes are also how Amazon is making Astro's actions more clear and deliberate. "When Astro's driving down a hallway, when it's going to turn left through a door, the eyes are going to shift left first, then the head will start to rotate, and the body follows. And the net result is it feels very natural and very much like you or I would walk through the door. We would turn our shoulders or our eyes as we go through that doorway. It's a good way to keep customers informed of the robot's intention as it turns or moves."

That personality could be a stepping-stone to other possible Amazon services, and to home care. "As you think through to the future, I think there's a big road map of areas where personality can help for things like, how do you combat loneliness?" Tritschler says. "We've seen some people come back with feedback already around it really feeling like it's a part of the family. We had kids burst into tears at the end of beta periods when we took Astro out of the home, because they'd already started that relationship process, even in the beta period."

Accessories and a possible SDK could open it up to other uses, including education

Astro will work with Alexa skills designed for the robot's motion, and it also has a USB-C port. (It could be used to charge a phone, and there will also be accessories, including a Furbo pet treat dispenser.) But the future beyond that could involve more dedicated apps. "Longer-term, we expect developers are going to want access to an SDK of some sort. So we're thinking about how we can do that in the future as a potential way to help create even more solutions for the product."

Research or education could also be on the table. Astro works with Amazon Kids, but things could go further than that, potentially. It all depends on whether Amazon is open with Astro like robot companies such as Sphero have been. "I think that goes kind of hand in hand a little bit with the SDK side," Tritschler says of educational possibilities. "Universities in particular are a very fertile ground for people to try all kinds of things, and I'm dying to see what some of the folks want to do in that space. But with kids, with you know, STEM and other educational opportunities, I think there could be a really interesting space there as well for something like Astro." 

Future Astros might climb stairs, grab things

Tritschler says the first version of Astro reflected a series of compromises between features and cost, so designers didn't implement their thoughts of stair-climbing and arms that could pick up things. "We looked at, could we make this device climb up and down stairs, but the added complexity would create cost, and we decided it's just not the right benefit to bring to customers today. Same thing with something like manipulation, having an arm or arms that can help pick things up off the floor, move things around, it's just not the right time right now with this product."

For future versions, it sounds like Amazon is still looking for more customer feedback. "This first version is really focused on getting that intelligent mobility into the space leveraging a lot of those services we talked about, and primarily hearing back from customers: What are the things that they really want us to do? What are the things they really like on Astro? What are some things they don't think are interesting? What are other services and capabilities we can create, whether it's for Astro or a future robot we build? We're really interested in getting that feedback."