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Home Robots Growing Into New Large CE Category

When someone says “robot,” free association responses range from machines that replace factory workers to the Terminator (which is actually a cyborg, but why get technical about it).

In the CE business, robots are largely represented by Roomba and other autonomous vacuum, floor or window cleaners such as those from Ecovacs (Sands 42351), including its new W950 ($499.99), and smart lawn motors.

But a new type of intelligent household robot will emerge at this year’s CES in the new Robotics Marketplace and in Eureka Park at the Sands, robots that are more anthropomorphic, closer relatives to R2D2, the mechanical maid Rosie from “The Jetsons,” Robbie the Robot from Forbidden Planet and his doppelganger from Lost in Space or even the slightly bent Bender from Futurama.

“The next phase of the consumer robotics revolution is well and truly underway,” says Aditya Kaul, research director of Tractica. “The next five years will set the stage for how these robots could fundamentally transform our homes and daily lives.”

These varying non-cleaning robot niches include education bots and bot kits such as the ZeroUI Ziro (Eureka Park 1713) and the Kubo (spring, $219) from Kubo (Sands 45340), gaming robots such as the MekaMon ($279) from Reach Robotics (Eureka Park 50607), senior companion bots such as the rolling Cutii from French robotics company Yumii (Eureka Park 50832, and not to be confused with the similarly named Alexa-compatible Yumi robot), and varying stabs at robotic pets, modern descendants of Sony’s Aibo.

“There are several different kinds of anthropomorphic robots,” exlains Ville Ukonaho, senior analyst at Strategy Analytics. “Some are designed for child care, some for ‘static’ companionship, some for mobile companionship.”

Analysts are at odds about how to define “robot” or how to standardize robot categories, or even if they can be categorized. But no matter how you define or classify the current or future home robotics types, the potential market is huge and getting huger.

For instance, Tractica projects annual shipments of consumer robots will increase from 6.6 million units in 2015 to 31.2 million units worldwide by 2020. More aggressively, the International Robotics Federation forecasts 35 million service robots for personal and domestic use will be sold annually by 2018. And perhaps defining “robots” more broadly, ABI Research says the total consumer robotics market in 2015 was $3.8 billion with 34 million product shipments, which will grow to $19 billion and more than 170 million units by 2025.

Defining ‘Robot’

So what, exactly, separates “robots” from simple programmable or RC-controlled devices? And are Roombas really “robots” in the way most people envision a “robot”?

“Robots are products that move in physical space when reacting to input from sensors,” insists Phil Solis, research director at ABI Research. “Sensors, motion and software tie those two together. [Some] use cameras and microphones to face a person interfacing with it.”

But robots have to do more than simply move or react independently, according to other observers.

“Robots need to have certain level of independence and be able to function autonomously,” expands Ukonaho. “Those need to be programmable and capable to execute predefined tasks independently. Some use AI to learn from their surroundings. Most sophisticated robots have NLP [natural language processing] functionality for voice detection/recognition and interaction.”

As AI gets more sophisticated, so are the varying intelligent and reactive robots coming to the consumer market. A new class of intelligent and conversational – though, hopefully, not sentient – personal or service robot are small and either stationary or slightly mobile; think an Amazon Echo on a pivot or wheels with a touchscreen and some cute human personality features or characteristics. These compact cute companions include Buddy from the French Blue Frog Robotics (Eureka Park 50826), and prototype concepts such as Sony’s Xperia Agent (LVCC Central 17300) and Mykie from Bosch (LVCC Central 14128).

A few ambitious robots, such as the Leenby from yet another French robotics company, Cybedroïd (Sands 42345) and the Sanbot open API, Cloud-brained robot platform ($12k) from Qihan (South Hall 20909), mimic more CP30-like aesthetics and behavior. Then there are the full-out humanoid attempts, such as Professor Einstein from Hanson Labs (Eureka Park 51263), a walking, talking, expressive robotic version of the legendary genius that acts as a friend and science tutor.

Robot Maturity

These early consumer robots are like newborns with little differentiation other than outward physical appearance, and are barely capable of performing any truly useful task beside answering rudimentary questions, performing smartphone-like PDA functions, and looking or acting cute.

“A lot of robotic products within each category are very similar because they are limited by the costs of the number of sensors, sensor types and processing power that could make them better,” says Solis. “The leading products here are leveraging Cloud robotics as opposed to having everything run on the robot itself. This allows the product to retain lower cost components while increasing the number of things it can do and the complexity of the product.”

As with all newborns, however, today’s baby consumer robots will grow out of their current technological limitations into what we see in science fiction.

“There will be increasing numbers of applications for mobile robots in the household,” predicts Dr. Michael Schahpar, CEO of Robart, an Austrian company developing autonomous navigation solutions for robots. “The devices will recognize their surroundings and communicate intuitively with the user. They will learn ever better and adapt to changing surroundings. And they will learn to understand their surroundings and thus be able to solve problems better.”

More light will be cast on the robot potential during the Robotics Conference on Friday from 9am to 12:30pm at CES, presented by Robotics Trends. Topics at the conference, to be held at the Venetian, Level 4, Marcello 4501, include delivery robots, AI and deep learning and real-world robots.