Alongside the growth in adoption of conversational AI like Amazon’s Alexa and Google Assistant, social robots are beginning to enter the home to help people get things done and play games together.
Unlike other electronics most often treated as inanimate objects, with social robots there’s more to consider, such as their personality or how they respond to commands. Home robots can be treated a bit like a pet or anthropomorphized by their owners. Other differences to consider include mobility (some look like a spider, others scoot around on wheels like R2-D2), the way it uses cameras for pictures or facial recognition, and of course the price tag, which can range from near $100 to more than $2,000.
Below find a selection of robots new to the market this year to help you decide which of these electronics — many of which mimic human emotion — are worth bringing into your home.
Jibo was first introduced in 2014 by Cynthia Breazeal, director of the Personal Robots Group at the MIT Media Lab, and after much delay, came to market in October. Shortly thereafter, Time magazine declared the robot one of the best inventions of 2017 and put it on the cover.
The 11-inch-tall device comes with two cameras on its face, two speakers on the side of its “head,” six microphones for listening to human voices, and a touchscreen face.
Jibo has no ability to move on wheels, but it can swivel a full 360 degrees when its microphones or cameras sense the presence of a person. It also moves to mimic emotion. Jibo responds to commands like “take a picture,” but also recognizes gestures and smiles to automate taking pictures.
Like Alexa and other AI assistants, Jibo has a wake word and uses natural language processing to understand the words it hears from people. Once intent is derived from words, Jibo can deliver things like news, weather, flight updates, or random facts.
Voice detection and facial recognition are used to recognize household members, delivering reminders or information based on who you are.
The JiboAlive software development kit was recently released, so the robot will soon have its own apps from third-party developers, the first of which will be available in the first quarter of 2018, according to a Jibo spokesperson.
A major downside: At this time, Jibo is unable to integrate with emails and calendars. An upside: Last week Jibo learned how to play music with an IHeartRadio integration.
The Jibo comes in black and white and costs $899.
Since making its debut at the Consumer Electronics Show last year, Kuri (pronounced like the food curry) from Mayfield Robotics has added a handful of new features and talents. Among them: This summer, Kuri got Kuri Vision, a Jibo-like service, as well as Google’s Clips camera that looks for photographable moments to take pictures or record video.
Kuri Vision can be set with restrictions based on time of day or specific rooms in your home.
Kuri is also able to mimic human emotion with its plastic eyelashes, red LED heart, moving neck, and “romojis,” expressions that tell you if Kuri understands the intent of your command or request.
The robot can play music, respond to touch, and listen for voice commands. Rather than responses with voice, Kuri responds to commands with beep-boop R2-D2 style natterings combined with movement and that glowing heart. Kuri does talk to do things like read stories to kids.
Like R2, Kuri gets around on a set of wheels.
Lasers are used for spatial mapping of the home to recognize rooms or to avoid running into objects, and when it’s out of battery Kuri automatically returns to its charging base. Facial recognition is used to identify members of a household.
Kuri comes from Mayfield Robotics, a company based in Silicon Valley but owned by German company Bosch.
Kuri can be preordered for $799.
The 2.7-foot-high Sanbot Nano was made by China-based Qihan and is one of the first social robots to use the Alexa Voice Service to incorporate Amazon’s AI assistant.
Though independent app offerings for robots like Jibo are available, it’s tough for any individual company to match Alexa, supported by hundreds of engineers.
Alexa in Nano means you will be able to play music, control smart home devices, and speak with more than 25,000 voice apps.
Alexa smarts are cool, but Sanbot has some smarts of its own. Like Kumi, Nano can automatically find its charging station when it’s low on battery.
Sanbot Nano comes in silver and white and costs $2,800.
Each robot manufacturer picks its shape and size. Well, Keeckler is round — real round. Beneath that round exterior are four speakers and a woofer that supply sound its makers say is as loud as a plane taking off. There’s also a set of wheels for getting around the house.
At 20 lbs., it’s also one of the heavier social robots around. That’s probably due to the fact that Keeckler has a projector inside capable of streaming 78-inch-wide video in 1080i HD.
With its three cameras, including a 360 fisheye lens, Keecker comes can also do security patrols, an increasingly common task for social robots for the home.
Keecker comes in white with 32 GB and 160 GB options that cost $1,790 and $1,990 respectively.
From robots designed to act as a personal assistant for getting things done, we now shift our attention to the robots made especially for playing games. One of the coolest out there for that purpose is Lego Boost.
This robot kit from Lego Group made its debut last year at CES and is made for play and programming for kids 7 and older. When paired with the Boost platform on an iOS or Android device, kids can make five different robots with names like Frankie the Cat and Vernie the Robot, or make their own custom creations.
Lego Boost robots can be configured using the Boost app to move and talk or carry out more than 60 different kinds of activities.
The Lego Boost robot kit sells for $160.
Battle robots aren’t a new concept, but instead of tearing each other apart in a cage match, MekaMon pits robots against each other in augmented reality.
Games for MekaMon’s four-legged Berserker robots are played with smartphones: battling in single player in the MekaMon arcade, engaging in two-player combat, or joining forces with other robots to fight AR enemies together with gear like the Fury Rifle or Training Shield. Watch this battle video or see this article by VentureBeat’s Stephanie Chan to learn more.
Custom moves can also be configured for MekaMon robots using the Swift programming language.
MekaMon’s Berserker comes in black and white and costs $299.
A step up from MekaMon, Hexa from Vincross has six legs. Rather than battle, Hexa has skills, so you can tell it to do things like dance, follow the color red like a bull, or navigate an obstacle course. Skills can be downloaded from the Hexa site.
Hexa can also be programmed with custom actions using the Go programming language.
Hexa does not respond to voice commands. Rather, it takes its marching orders from the Hexa smartphone app, where you can download additional skills made by Hexa or the community of Hexa owners.
At its center, Hexa can rotate 360 degrees to swivel its battery of cameras and sensors with 720p night vision, an infrared transmitter, and distance measurement in any direction. Hexa is able to do some novel, unique things, but lasts only 1.5 hours when plugged in and up to 4 hours with a wireless charger.
Released for the first time this fall in the United States, the robot costs $949 or $999 with a wireless charger.
Released this fall, Sphero Mini moves in a way similar to BB8 from Star Wars. That’s probably because Sphero made BB8.
When paired with a smartphone app, this versatile little ball can be controlled with your facial movements or with swipes of your finger, enabling multiplayer games on tabletops and elsewhere. It can even be used as a game controller. See this story by VentureBeat’s Dean Takahashi to learn more.
Sphero Mini comes in a variety of colors and costs $50.