Thursday, November 8, 2007

Robot Consumers, Grow Up!

Part of the problem is the Western world's relatively short history with robots.

[...] robots (or at
least automatons) have been part of the Japanese culture for hundreds
of years. They're seen as friends, helpers, entertainers, and
companions. They've always resembled their creators.

What Sony didn't anticipate, [...] was its
target market's antipathy toward home robots. The more powerful and
realistic AIBO became (the final version, the ERS-7, looked remarkably
like a plastic-covered dog), the less interest Americans showed.
American consumers fixate on anthropomorphism and generally find
androids and even android pets grotesque. You won't find a lifelike
robot receptionist in the U.S., but there are already many at work in

There's an obvious comfort level with the now five-year-old iRobot Roomba
vacuum cleaner. It doesn't look like us or any of our pets. We
understand that there is some intelligence in there, but we are not
threatened by it.

Ironically, Americans also have a fascination with
robots that look and act like real, living things. David Hanson, for
instance, often receives broad, laudatory media coverage for his
Frubber-faced Einstein robot. Now he's working on Zeno, an Astro Boy–like automaton
that will have a Frubber face and offer real social interaction.
Release is a year or more away, and who knows how much the company will
have to charge. I worry about the product's viability in this

American robot consumers have yet to comprehend
the cost of the programming and mechanical complexity necessary to
create effective, realistic, interactive robots.

Hasbro, however, may have found the formula for
success in the U.S. The company has been building functionally limited,
successful FurReal friends for years [...].
The products have canned interactions, never learn, and usually cost
less than $70. They also look quite realistic. The lower price point
seems to help parents overcome their hesitation, and they usually wind
up bringing home a Hasbro robotic pet for the holidays.

$149 Robopanda,
is its most sophisticated offering and could prove the least successful
in the U.S. Again, it straddles the line between engagement and

erhaps Americans' inability to accept complex
robotics has something to do with our tendency to generate emotional
attachments to inanimate objects. We shower our cars, homes, and boats
with the affection we should be directing to, say, our children. Add
just a touch of intelligence and interaction and our engagement
increases exponentially.

Of course, the challenge is on both American
consumers who can't handle the idea of anthropomorphic robotics and the
engineers who spend their lives inside university laboratories and have
no idea how consumers will respond to their life's work.

The consumer robotics market is not going to
explode. American consumers simply aren't mature enough. Instead, the
future of robotics will, for the next decade or so, be a story of
embedded technologies.

Article Link (PCMag)

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