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.

So while robots like the Roomba will no doubt continue to hold a huge piece of the market, Christopher said that he believes the most impressive market growth will be in robots that offer companionship and entertainment. Such robots give their owners a much deeper sense of connection and fill a "social void."

"(It's) just like a good Pixar film is more rewarding and successful than a film on the Discovery Channel," Christopher said. "The Pixar film will have a much larger audience."

Today, it is already possible to see glimpses of what's down the road. For example, Hanson said that WowWee's new FemiSapien robot--which it showed off at the Consumer Electronics Show--is well worth checking out.

"Why shouldn't your MP3 player dance around, get sad, and tell you to feed it new music to keep it healthy?"
--Phillip Torrone,
senior editor,
Make magazine

Hanson described his competitor's FemiSapien--with its ability to dance and blow kisses with flair--as "stunning, astonishing, (and) a major leap forward in defining expectations."

The future of personal robots is likely to include a convergence of features currently found on all sorts of different devices.

For example, Make magazine senior editor Phillip Torrone pointed out that Sony recently released Rolly, a robotic MP3 player.

"I literally flew to Japan to get one," Torrone said. "It's a $300-ish music companion that looks like an egg from outer space that dances along with music. We'll probably see more of this in the next year or so...Why shouldn't your MP3 player dance around, get sad, and tell you to feed it new music to keep it healthy?"

For his part, Hanson envisions a fundamental shift in how the "brains" of personal robots work. Currently, most such products have everything built inside the shell, including what controls how they operate.

But thanks to advances in wireless communications technology, Hanson predicts that before too long, many personal robots will serve, effectively, as robot terminals, with all the instructions stored on servers elsewhere.

"The ubiquity of cell networks and Wi-Fi networks can mean low-cost consumer robotic characters (that) can connect to a bank of servers on the other end of the wireless network--which can have on them state-of-the-art artificial intelligence software," he said.

Added Hanson, "If you have that processing power on this bank of servers, you can then have low-cost toy hardware that is using supercomputers on the other end of the wireless networks to perform the toy's mental calculations...By 2015, you're going to see entrepreneurs developing applications...using the capabilities made possible by these fundamental shifts in technology."

Among the possible applications this would make possible, Hanson argued, are robots that can make deliveries or can navigate a backyard, identifying fallen leaves and raking them up.

One dynamic that's currently up in the air is how much investment will be made in this industry over the next few years and which companies will have the financial wherewithal to produce sophisticated robots for the consumer market.

"Right now, it's hard to get investment in this space and especially in character robotics," said Hanson, "because...character robots haven't existed in the market. So investors look for precedent and they look for an existing market."

Still, some see a very healthy future for investment in this industry.

"There seems to be an unlimited amount of investment for 'entertainment' type robots," Torrone said. "Maybe it's the novelty. Maybe it's a good intersection of technology and the need to 'care' for something but not actually needing to be that responsible. (It's) an ADD pal for the pet-owner-wannabes in the Internet age."

And as Ugobe's Pleo begins to make its way into consumers' hands, company execs are already looking down the line at what new technologies promise for the future.

"I think the surprises will probably be in the sensor level--the ability for a robot to recognize your emotions and how you feel and then adapt and respond to you in a very meaningful way," Christopher said. "The closer we get to the transparency of a social dialogue with the robot, where you forget that it's a robot--where you actually think about it as a character that understands you--the closer we get to where robots are truly meaningful."

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