Rosie or Jarvis: The future of the smart home is still in the air

We're getting ready to live in a world where it's less about taking care of our homes, and more about our homes taking care of us. But will that come in the form of robot maids or intelligent homes?

Richard Nieva Former senior reporter
Richard Nieva was a senior reporter for CNET News, focusing on Google and Yahoo. He previously worked for PandoDaily and Fortune Magazine, and his writing has appeared in The New York Times, on CNNMoney.com and on CJR.org.
Richard Nieva
5 min read

Nest, co-founded by Matt Rogers, is one of the companies trying to create an intelligent room. James Martin/CNET

LAS VEGAS -- The tech industry once again can't decide: When it comes to the home of the future, will it have a centralized computer telling you when to mop floors, clean windows and cook breakfast, or will there be an all-in-one robot doing those tasks for you?

Will our lives be filled with a smart hub like Jarvis, the fictional computer personality from the "Iron Man" comic books that helped inventor Tony Stark remotely control his gadgets? Or will there be a robot like Rosie, the ever-present metallic maid who cleaned, cooked and cared for "The Jetsons" cartoon family?

Those competing beliefs were on display at the Consumer Electronics Show here last week, where more than 3,600 technology vendors from around the world came to make their case for their version of the future.

On one side were firms like Nest, which makes a smart thermostat and smoke detector and is now trying to bring Internet-connected things together onto one platform so they can perform tasks together. On another were companies like iRobot, maker of the automated robo-vacuum Roomba.

The simple answer to why the market isn't moving decidedly in one direction has to do with us: Consumers haven't yet picked whether we prefer Rosie or Jarvis. "I'm not sure customers know what they want," said Lauren Orvidas, vice president of Amazon Consumer Electronics. Orvidas oversees the e-commerce giant's online retail stores, which offer everything from cameras to mobile and wearable devices.

Animators Joseph Barbera and William Hanna captured imaginations with "The Jetsons" and a vision of a robo-maid (bottom left). Getty Images

That will change in the future, as the technology evolves, prices drop and more people become aware of the choices each version of the robot presents. For now, expect investments in both types of technology because everyone looking to play in the market agrees that Web-connected products will transform our homes.

Tech companies -- from giants like Google and Apple to crafty upstarts -- are looking toward the automated home as the next battleground beyond smartphones, tablets and laptops. Computer networking giant Cisco estimates 50 billion things will be connected to the Internet by 2020. Over the next decade, the company says, the Internet of Things will create $19 trillion in increased profit for companies and cost savings.

The promise of a smart home is starting to pique peoples' interest. The category is still so early that many research firms don't track consumer sentiment. But in 2013 -- the most recent year data is available -- 35 percent of people surveyed said they were interested in a digitally remote-controlled energy management system, though only 2 percent had tried it out, according to Forrester Research. The firm also found 34 percent were interested in a digital and remote security system, while only 5 percent had tried it.

The Internet of many things

There seems to be a smart device for everything. There's a smart bed for children that tracks your kid's sleep, a robot that cleans your barbecue grill. There's even a device that senses the water in the soil and alerts your smartphone when you need to douse your plants.

There are so many things that in the home that can be connected that companies are creating software hubs to manage them all.

Nest, makers of the Internet-connected thermostat and smoke detector, is one of the highest profile companies doing this. In June, the company announced the "Works with Nest" developer program, which makes sure products from different companies work with its software. For example, a partnership with Mercedes Benz means your car can tell Nest to turn up the heat at home so it's warm when you arrive. The company added 15 partners this month, including conglomerate Philips and August, a company that makes an Internet-connected door lock.

There are early signs this approach is gaining a foothold. Google bought Nest last year for more more than $3 billion. Nest has also broken into the mainstream, running ads on TV and selling its products at Best Buy and The Home Depot.

Eventually, analysts say, hubs like Nest's will help the home sense what you need, adjusting everything automatically. The devices themselves might eventually disappear into the home, merely acting as sensors and devices controlled from a single hub. Imagine a thermostat you don't see, said Jonathan Gaw, an analyst for research firm IDC. "The interface is on your phone -- all you really need is a thermometer" attached to the wall.

Rise of the robots?

When people talk about robots in the home, they almost always bring up Rosie, which has been the archetypal household robot since the cartoon "The Jetsons" premiered in 1962. She was depicted as a duster-wielding maid-bot on wheels, rolling around the house in a frilly apron. She represented a general-purpose, do-it-all robot that vacuums your floors, does your dishes and serves you coffee while offering witty comebacks in any conversation.

iRobot, which makes the Ava video-conferencing robot, thinks its bot is a precursor to a head-of-household robot like the Jetsons' maid, Rosie. iRobot

We're not there yet, but we're not too far from it either. At CES, there were plenty of robots, both innovative and wacky. Some traverse a room, controlled over the Internet by a user, whose face is teleconferenced onto the screen. One robot could fetch a beer or soda for you from the fridge.

There are several challenges to building a general purpose robot, and a cartoon can only go so far in predicting the future. For example, Rosie vacuumed the Jetsons' home using a traditional upright vacuum cleaner. Colin Angle, chief executive of iRobot, maker of the robo-vacuum Roomba, predicts the real-life version will have that ability built-in.

But the robot could become that hub Nest is trying to build, creating a central control center for apps and devices to connect to. The biggest advantage to having a robot is that it can physically work in an environment -- roam, serve, pour -- said Paolo Pirjanian, iRobot's CTO.

That company has good reason to hope for the Rosie scenario. Its Ava line of robots is a video conferencing machine for businesses. The bot is a screen mounted on a platform that rolls around.

It's only a matter of time, the company says, before you and I meet something like Rosie.

Fickle customers

One reason the market hasn't solidified around one answer is that customers haven't picked a clear winner. When Apple released the iPhone, one of its most novel features was a touch screen that eschewed a physical keyboard. Sales of the device soared and within a few years, almost every other smartphone maker followed Apple's touch screen lead.

That's not how it's gone in the connected home industry -- despite decades of discussion,

Companies and analysts think the reality will be a combination of both smart rooms and robotics. "Everything will be interconnected," said Brian Pettey, CEO of Kansas-based robot vendor Actobotics, which provides components to make robots. Pettey thinks many different robots and services will connect to a central hub in the home.

In the short term, analysts say a smart home with a collection of devices seems a more attainable goal than a Rosie-like digital worker because of price, said Bill Morelli, an analyst at the research firm IHS. At CES, Korean-based company FutureRobot said its intelligent kiosk robot, the Furo-S, sells for $75,000. The company nicknamed the robot Rosie because it looks like the cartoon maid (though it didn't tell any jokes). The Furo-S isn't yet being targeted for home use, a spokesman noted.

Eventually, Morelli said, robots that perform many tasks will arrive in our homes. But don't stop doing the laundry or dishes just yet. "The leap to get from where we are today is very, very difficult."