Amazon knows you’re probably skeptical about “Alexa on wheels,” but it’s making its Astro robot anyway. Announced today, the latest iteration of the retailer’s smart assistant cuts the cord completely – well, for as long as the battery lasts, anyway – in a way the rotating Echo Show 10 could only dream of, though there’s still an uphill struggle if Astro is to convince us that it’s a household necessity.
From a technical perspective, there’s a lot here to be impressed by. An animated, motorized display; a periscope camera; advanced SLAM and navigational technologies that can learn a home; localized voice and image processing to minimize data sharing with the cloud; and a bonafide virtual personality aimed at winning over skeptics. Astro may have a Dalek-like aversion to stairs – and Amazon is probably hoping that the conversation pit doesn’t come back in style – but there’s no denying just how much the engineers responsible have squeezed in for a competitive (in robotics terms) $999.99.
The challenge, though, is convincing regular people that those technologies have a place in their home. Amazon’s new Astro video tackles that skepticism head-on, running through a laundry list of things that its robot could be relied upon for. Everything from shuttling you drinks to putting your mind at ease about elderly relatives can be tasked to Astro, so the video explains, making the robot part security guard, part butler, and part companion.
There’ll be accessories to emphasize that, too. If you’ve got a Furbo Dog Camera, for example, that can slot into the back of Astro so as to toss out pet treats. A specially-designed Ziploc container fits perfectly into the robot’s cargo bin, while OMRON has a wrist blood pressure monitor that can show its results on Astro’s screen. The robot could even hunt down a forgetful relative and remind them to use it.
Amazon’s video also highlights just how much Astro can’t do, of course. The robot may be able to catch a raccoon ransacking the kitchen, but it can’t tidy up: there’s no Roomba-style vacuum. You can check to make sure you left the range turned off, but since Astro lacks any arms or grippers, you’ll have to go back home to actually turn it off yourself.
The same goes for filling up those drinks holders, or indeed doing anything in home security beyond sounding its siren and uploading security footage to the cloud – footage that may very well show an enterprising burglar tucking your thousand dollar robot under their arm as they high-tail it across the lawn.
Amazon’s argument, I’m sure, is that Astro is only the start of its efforts in home robotics. As Dave Limp, VP of Devices and Services, said today, this is the company’s first robot, not its only one. As much a test bed to see what resonates with users and what they’d like to see more (or less) of, as a product in its own right. You pay $999.99 – and spin the wheel on Amazon’s Day 1 Edition roulette to see if you’re deemed worthy of handing over your cash – for the privilege of being a guinea pig.
The robotics world is littered with the ambitious, crushed dreams of would-be home robot pioneers. Jibo and Kuri placed their bets on the idea that personality would win over beyond outright functionality, risks that failed to pay off. It’s hard to imagine that Sony’s Aibo robotic dog would’ve ever seen a reboot had it not been for the Japanese company’s deep pockets overruling business sense.
The irony is that the original Amazon Echo proved to be instrumental in undermining those more ambitious robot plans. Jibo, for instance, tasked former Disney animators with giving its animated eyes the sort of expressions that would overcome user reluctance, only for a cylindrical smart speaker made of black plastic to inspire the same engagement with little more than a sassy voice and a glowing blue LED ring.
That we’re going full circle is, in part, down to Amazon’s considerable war chest to Make Home Robots Happen. Nonetheless, it’s clear that there are some big hurdles – not least stairs – that Astro needs to deal with if it’s to build a case for a cohabiting with a personable ‘bot.