As we anticipate a future filled with smart machines and high levels of automation, you may look around yourself right now and ask “Where are all the robots?”. While we don’t yet have anything like Rosie from The Jetsons to clean the dishes and watch the kids, household robotics are advancing pretty quickly.
There are also plenty of sophisticated robots that aren’t designed to work for you, but to entertain or otherwise interact with you in interesting ways. In this article I want to look at a few robots that you could actually buy today and have in your home. It doesn’t matter if they are useful or just cool – if they are true robots they can make this list.
Asus is a huge international tech company. Chances are pretty good that just about everyone reading this has used at least one Asus product in their lifetime – even without knowing it. Despite the wide variety of tech products that the company makes, I was still surprised to see the Zenbo. But, in retrospect, maybe I should have expected it.
The Zenbo shows that Asus has done its homework. It channels pretty well such adorable TV robots as WALL-E from the eponymous Disney film. Unlike WALL-E’s treads, however, Zenbo rolls around like BB-8 from Star Wars. This little guy doesn’t have manipulators, but it can recognize people, remind you of stuff that you have to do, and raise an alarm during emergencies. You’ll need a second one if you have stairs, though.
The best part of the Zenbo is probably the price. This is really a household robot that can also interact with other home automation devices if they are developed for the SDK Asus provides. At only $600, this could be your first-generation family robot.
It seems that WALL-E had a big influence on the makers of home robots. Cozmo is a little toy robot that is actually very sophisticated when it comes to simulating emotional interactions with a human being. His “brain” is actually the processor of your smartphone, where the Cozmo app resides. The robot itself is just a platform.
With an amazingly expressive face and endearing mannerisms, Cozmo is just a cool little bot. He can learn from you, and his personality and mannerisms can change. Cozmo is packed with facial recognition tech and environment mapping, and he can play two games with you out of the box.
Cozmo can also be hacked and reprogrammed with official support from the makers. Eventually even third-party developers will get to make software for Cozmo. $180 may seem like a lot for what is essentially just a toy, but given the amazing tech packed into Cozmo, it’s actually a steal.
When you think about household robots from science fiction, the iPal is probably one robot that’s going to match your imagination most closely. It looks like a robot that could have been taken directly from a shiny Utopian sci-fi movie.
The iPal is designed to be a “social companion” for children, although that makes me wonder where the child’s human friends have gone. The iPal has a humanlike face, although, sensibly, the makers have opted not to try and make a realistic face, since this tends to be too creepy, nine times out of ten.
There is a total of 15 sensors onboard, and the robot can recognize objects and faces using its built-in hardware. Unlike many robotics products, the iPal runs on Android – the same operating system driving smartphones, tablets, smart TVs, and many other consumer products. This is one of the reasons that the price of the iPal is relatively reasonable.
The iPal can act as your kids’ teacher by using various educational applications. It can also just chat with the kids, tell them stories, sing, and dance. It’s also a way for kids to safely connect to the internet without adult supervision; it can even act as a telepresence robot for their human friends.
This is not the only market that the company is aiming at, however. They also see the iPal playing a role in hospitality and elder care. $2000 bucks is not to be sniffed at, but those babysitter fees rack up quickly too!
Pepper, from Aldebaran Robotics, is without a doubt one of the sleekest and most attractive robots I’ve seen so far. If you thought the iPal looked like near-future sci-fi, Pepper will remind you of something even further along than that. Whatever the complexity of its internal technology, Pepper is one good-looking bot.
This is another robot specifically designed to “live” right next to humans in the home, which is why Pepper has been built to come across as very kind and endearing. What makes Pepper really special is the implementation of “affective” computing; this refers to computer systems that can understand human emotions and use them as an input for a device’s behavior.
Pepper is a robot that can speak with you, recognize you, and move around the home autonomously. The emotional understanding of Pepper is quite impressive. It can learn your specific character traits and then change its behavior in kind. Pepper has found a home working in retail as a greeter in Japanese stores, but it’s also moving into households as well. It’s a brilliant piece of kit.
The Lynx from UBTech is a deceptively toy-like robot with its tiny stature and friendly plastic face, but it is perhaps one of the most practical household robots you can currently get. This is mainly due to the fact that it is designed to integrate with the Alexa home automation platform. Alexa can live within Lynx and you can command both using just your voice. The integration may not be perfect and it may feel like you are talking to two different entities, but as a starting point for a practical home automation control platform, I like what I see in Lynx.
The Lynx has camera sensors and a total of 18 servos that help it get around and do some impressive yoga and dance moves. Impressively, it can recognize faces and keep track of the people who are in the room with it. This recognition can be used to trigger responses or functions. For one thing, it means this little bot can greet you by name.
It also doubles as a mobile IP camera, since you can access the video feed via the internet. There is some measure of telepresence as well, since you can make video calls with this robot. Unlike Pepper or iPal, Lynx doesn’t have a screen, so you’ll have to treat his face as a stand-in for your caller.
The apparent split personality comes from the way that commands are structured. Most of the time you will be commanding Lynx via Alexa, like some sort of interpreter. For native Lynx functions you can address Lynx directly. I understand why this clunky control method currently exists but, hopefully, future versions of Alexa will make it better.
Lynx is pretty expensive at about $800, but if you have that much spare cash lying around it’s an entertaining option. I will definitely be waiting for a second version.
Do The Home Robot
In many ways, these home robots are pretty disappointing. Most of them can’t make it up stairs and they don’t really do that much you can’t already achieve with one or two existing gadgets that aren’t robots. Yet, you may have felt the same way about early computers too. When computers like the Altair 8800 came to market, they were strictly of interest to hardcore computer science geeks. It was a way for them to play with a computer not bolted into the ground at a company or university.
But look where we are today. Computers are now essential and genuinely useful; if it had not been for those early computers, we would have none of this. The robots I highlight in this article are not very useful – I could have talked about window cleaning robots or Roomba vacuums – but these robots are interesting items on their own, and the people who would want them are those who like robotics for its own sake. But without these first-generation robots we’ll never have true household robots that can do things like wash the dishes or feed the dog.
My attitude is to appreciate these devoces for what they are and marvel that such sophisticated tech is possible at such relatively low prices. I, for one, welcome our new robot underlings.