January 11, 2008 11:55 AM PST
Head over heels for tomorrow's personal robots
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So while robots like the Roomba will no doubt continue to hold a huge piece of the market, Christopher said that he believes the most impressive market growth will be in robots that offer companionship and entertainment. Such robots give their owners a much deeper sense of connection and fill a "social void."
"(It's) just like a good Pixar film is more rewarding and successful than a film on the Discovery Channel," Christopher said. "The Pixar film will have a much larger audience."
Today, it is already possible to see glimpses of what's down the road. For example, Hanson said that WowWee's new FemiSapien robot--which it showed off at the Consumer Electronics Show--is well worth checking out.
Hanson described his competitor's FemiSapien--with its ability to dance and blow kisses with flair--as "stunning, astonishing, (and) a major leap forward in defining expectations."
The future of personal robots is likely to include a convergence of features currently found on all sorts of different devices.
For example, Make magazine senior editor Phillip Torrone pointed out that Sony recently released Rolly, a robotic MP3 player.
"I literally flew to Japan to get one," Torrone said. "It's a $300-ish music companion that looks like an egg from outer space that dances along with music. We'll probably see more of this in the next year or so...Why shouldn't your MP3 player dance around, get sad, and tell you to feed it new music to keep it healthy?"
For his part, Hanson envisions a fundamental shift in how the "brains" of personal robots work. Currently, most such products have everything built inside the shell, including what controls how they operate.
But thanks to advances in wireless communications technology, Hanson predicts that before too long, many personal robots will serve, effectively, as robot terminals, with all the instructions stored on servers elsewhere.
"The ubiquity of cell networks and Wi-Fi networks can mean low-cost consumer robotic characters (that) can connect to a bank of servers on the other end of the wireless network--which can have on them state-of-the-art artificial intelligence software," he said.
Added Hanson, "If you have that processing power on this bank of servers, you can then have low-cost toy hardware that is using supercomputers on the other end of the wireless networks to perform the toy's mental calculations...By 2015, you're going to see entrepreneurs developing applications...using the capabilities made possible by these fundamental shifts in technology."
Among the possible applications this would make possible, Hanson argued, are robots that can make deliveries or can navigate a backyard, identifying fallen leaves and raking them up.
One dynamic that's currently up in the air is how much investment will be made in this industry over the next few years and which companies will have the financial wherewithal to produce sophisticated robots for the consumer market.
"Right now, it's hard to get investment in this space and especially in character robotics," said Hanson, "because...character robots haven't existed in the market. So investors look for precedent and they look for an existing market."
Still, some see a very healthy future for investment in this industry.
"There seems to be an unlimited amount of investment for 'entertainment' type robots," Torrone said. "Maybe it's the novelty. Maybe it's a good intersection of technology and the need to 'care' for something but not actually needing to be that responsible. (It's) an ADD pal for the pet-owner-wannabes in the Internet age."
And as Ugobe's Pleo begins to make its way into consumers' hands, company execs are already looking down the line at what new technologies promise for the future.
"I think the surprises will probably be in the sensor level--the ability for a robot to recognize your emotions and how you feel and then adapt and respond to you in a very meaningful way," Christopher said. "The closer we get to the transparency of a social dialogue with the robot, where you forget that it's a robot--where you actually think about it as a character that understands you--the closer we get to where robots are truly meaningful."
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