If Amazon is really working on a robot for the home, it's going to take on a challenge that caused at least 3 startups to fail
- Amazon's next big push into the smart home technology space could be a personal robot, as reports from Bloomberg have indicated.
- Amazon's reported ambitions in the home robot field would come after multiple companies have tried and failed to get the technology to take off - in the past year, three personal-robotics startups all failed.
- A large company like Amazon has many advantages, such as the funding to explore such projects and a smart home platform that's already popular.
- But it might not be enough to address the underlying challenge of convincing consumers why they should want a home robot in the first place.
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The concept of the robotic assistant is almost as old as science fiction itself. And there's been no shortage of tech firms trying to make it a reality - from promising startups founded by experts in robotics and artificial intelligence, to tech behemoths like LG and Samsung. But despite these efforts, robotic butlers that can do more than turn on the lights or provide weather updates feel as far away as ever.
Amazon could be the next major tech company attempting to change this by bringing robots into the home, according to Bloomberg.
The company is reportedly working on a home robot, codenamed "Vesta," that would essentially serve as a mobile version of Alexa that could follow you around the home. Prototypes of the device are said to be about waist high, and the robot would navigate its surroundings using computer vision. It's unclear when Amazon would plan to announce or launch the robot, but Bloomberg reports that it was initially slated to be unveiled this year.
If Amazon does debut a home robot, it would come after numerous startups have done so and failed. Anki, the startup founded by three Carnegie Mellon Robotics Institute alumni that initially gained popularity through its smartphone-controlled race cars, announced in April that it was closing its doors.
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The once-buzzy startup previously sold two robots, Cozmo and Vector, which both looked like characters plucked from a Pixar film that could fit in the palm of your hand. Their sophisticated facial expressions and ability to read and and navigate their environments made them stand out from other alternatives, but the company ultimately lacked the funding it needed to continue operating, as Recode first reported.
The companies behind Jibo and Kuri, two other home robots that caught media attention for their bubbly, almost human-like personalities, also shut down over the past year.
It's not just startups that have struggled to bring robots into the mainstream. Large firms such as Samsung, LG, and Asus have all announced home robots in recent years, many of which are usually draw much attention at the Consumer Electronics Show that takes place in Las Vegas each January. But none of them have made their way into US homes yet.
Amazon upended the e-commerce, smart home, and publishing industries through products like its online store, the Kindle, and the Echo. But developing a home robot will be a challenge even for Amazon, one of the world's most valuable brands, for one important reason: People may not have a reason to want it.
Part of the problem is that robots like Kuri and Jibo didn't offer much more functionality than the devices we already have in our homes - devices like the Amazon Echo, Google Home, smart home security cameras, and our smartphones already help feed us information and perform common tasks, with more flexibility and a lower price than any home robot.
They're also considerably more expensive than devices like the Echo, which comes as cheap as $50 if you opt for the Dot model. Jibo was priced at $900, while Mayfield Robotics charged $700 for Kuri. iRobot's Roomba self-piloting vacuum is probably the best example of a successful home robot - one that's proven to be useful for a specific task.
"The Amazon Echo is available for dirt cheap," said Mukul Krishna, a senior global director of digital media at research and analysis firm Frost & Sullivan. "So certainly you're thinking about, OK what is the utility?"
Proving that a home robot is valuable will likely be Amazon's biggest hurdle. But it will also have to overcome other challenges, like perfecting a robot that can successfully navigate and transition between carpet and wood flooring. It will also have to sell a product that follows you around the home at a time when concerns over consumer privacy are as high as ever.
Of course, Amazon does have some important advantages working in its favor, especially when compared to startups. It has the necessary resources to invest in the development of the technology, and it already has a strong relationship with consumers. Plus, it's already established it Alexa assistant as being a criticial component of the smart home, so there are already many home appliances, products, and apps that are compatible with it. But if this "Vesta" home robot truly is Amazon's next big bet for the home, it's unclear if those assets will be enough.
"It's not obvious that Amazon would be able to slam dunk succeed in this space," said Frank Gillett, a vice president and principal analyst with market research firm Forrester. "The idea of a home robot, it's a solution looking for a problem."
Amazon did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
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