Head over heels for tomorrow's personal robots

Our future appears to be full of empathetic, human-like, companion robots at relatively low prices.

If you never thought you could own a companion robot--one that could chat with you, snuggle when you're glum, rub up against you for attention, and coo when you stroke it--think again.

The recent launch of Pleo, a dinosaur "life form" from Emeryville, Calif.-based Ugobe is one of the more high-profile releases of a companion robot to date. And its $350 price may be just low enough to lure a mainstream audience.

But this is just the beginning.

In fact, suggests a group of industry insiders, Pleo is likely to be a jumping-off point for ubiquitous, inexpensive robots with capabilities far beyond what is possible today, including offering people a level of empathetic companionship that has so far been strictly the province of science fiction.

And while robots like Pleo may be seen--in spite of their makers' marketing plans--as toys, the very meaning of the term "toys" could be up for a major reinterpretation.

"Pretty soon, they're not going to be called 'toys' anymore, or they'll redefine what 'toys' mean," said David Hanson, the founder and chief scientist of Hanson Robotics. His Richardson, Texas-based company specializes in what it calls "conversation character robots," and its Zeno robot-boy can recognize, understand, and respond to human facial features.

"These devices are changing toys into a much more flexible information-processing medium?a revolutionary character medium (that is) becoming increasingly aware of humans," Hanson said.

Personal robotics is a wide-open field, and one that ABI Research analyst Philip Solis recently estimated will be worth $15 billion annually by 2015. But the term "personal robotics," as Solis defines it, encompasses and is currently dominated by devices like . Roombas, while extremely handy, are hardly companions.

If you watch someone play with the Pleo, however, you can quickly see why an empathetic robot--one that responds to human input, makes pet-like noises, and appears to be eager to interact--is desirable and has a vast amount of room to evolve.

That's the territory where companies like Hanson Robotics, WowWee, and Ugobe are planting their flags. They are hoping to capture significant portions of the business by bringing to market the types of robot toys and companions that haven't been seen before.

"Pretty soon, they're not going to be called 'toys' anymore, or they'll redefine what 'toys' mean."
--David Hanson,
chief scientist,
Hanson Robotics

A much bigger name, Sony, attempted to do the same back in 1999 with the release of its famed Aibo robot dog. Sony made great strides in advancing the concept of realistic pet-like companions. But Aibo's price was steep--$2,000--and it was never a commercial hit.

The much-smaller robotics companies like Hanson, WowWee, and Ugobe are hoping that by releasing products in the $200 and $300 range they can win over previously interested but uncommitted customers.

One of the biggest driving forces behind the market's expansion--which will likely take at least a few more years to bear truly impressive fruit--will be the tumbling of component prices that will lead to lower price tags on the products, a number of industry insiders said.

That's especially true when it comes to the processors--such as the ARM7 and ARM9 used in many of these devices--and the cameras that enable these robots to be both intelligent and interactive.

The prices of camera controllers and other components are dropping quickly, said Hanson. "I would say definitely by 2010, 2011, 2012, we'll see these kinds of robots go below the $200 price range."

Others agree.

"It's beginning to really take off right now," said Bob Christopher, Ugobe's CEO. "2008 is going to be a big catalyst for robotics...So you have this kind of convergence happening in the market demand and the ability to meet that."

By 2010, Christopher said, the market will likely be rife with robots with more highly advanced feedback systems that can more readily react to people.

"Applications that draw us in emotionally will be more evident in personal robotics," Christopher said. "And the price points will be more affordable in (building-block) technologies that will allow these robots to be more feature rich."

Of course, not everyone buys the argument that the price tags will tumble in the next few years.

In fact, said, Davin Sufer, chief technology officer of San Diego-based WowWee, the overall cost of materials is actually going up.

"If you look at the costs of metals and plastics, (they're going up) because of the cost of petroleum," Sufer said. "Overall, I don't see that downward trend."

Sufer acknowledged that the cost of electronic components is likely to drop but that this will be offset by the higher costs of the metals and plastics. He predicted that prices will stay in the range they are today, with high-end personal robots--albeit ones much more technologically advanced than today--still costing in the $300 range.

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