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The 2020 Consumer Electronics Show (CES) came to a close this week, as signaled by the throngs of robotics companies packing up their wares for long flights home. Machines were on display at Unveiled, CES’ annual pre-show, including a robot capable of playing tic-tac-toe and handing over coffee mugs. More made appearances ahead of the show at Pepcom’s Digital Experience showcase and at the convention itself over the subsequent days.
It’s estimated that the robotics market will top $181 billion by 2024, but not every model is destined to become a blockbuster hit. In search of the most promising products, we wandered the Vegas Strip. This list is the result.
During its CES keynote address on Monday evening, Samsung introduced the world to Ballie, a concept device whose muse might have been LG’s Rolling Bot. According to Sebastian Seung, chief research scientist at Samsung, the ball-shaped companion is designed to react to owners’ needs and desires with a built-in camera, a microphone, and a speaker.
Ballie’s on-device AI enables it to serve as a fitness assistant, as well as a sort of interface that seeks solutions to various wants. It acts as a security robot, patrolling rooms at night and when folks are away during the day, and it can follow an elderly member of the family around and call for help if they suffer a fall. Plus, thanks to its offline processing capabilities, Ballie is ostensibly able to this while maintaining “stringent” data protection and privacy standards.
Ballie recognizes when people around the house complete chores and automatically checks them off tasks lists, and Samsung implied that the robot can talk to various smart device platforms like the company’s own SmartThings. Onstage, H.S. Kim, president and CEO of Samsung’s consumer electronics division, walked through a demo video that showed Ballie opening curtains, turning on a TV, and kicking off a vacuum’s cleaning routine.
It’s unclear whether there’s much to Ballie beyond a few canned demos — indeed, Samsung was loath to share a launch window, specifications, or potential price points. But assuming the grapefruit-sized ball eventually rolls its way from the skunkworks to store shelves, it could be one of the more capable home robot products to come to market in recent years.
Matthieu Lapeyre and Pierre Rouanet, the founders of two-year-old Bordeaux, France-based Pollen Robotics, are on a mission to build modular building blocks for consumer robots. The startup’s Reachy platform comprises a 7-degrees-of-freedom arm designed to fit tools at the end of its tip, including a hook, a gripper, and a five-finger hand. As for Reachy’s spherical head, it’s animated by Pollen’s proprietary Orbita, a ball joint actuator that supports dynamic and multi-directional movement with animated antennas that convey emotions (e.g., happiness, sadness, and excitement).
The head has two built-in cameras, one of which observes its environment. (The other focuses on the task of manipulating.) I/O connections including USB, HDMI, and Ethernet are accessible from the upper portion of its fabric-clad, vaguely humanlike torso, as are a microphone and speaker for voice interaction. There’s a system-on-chip under the hood powering it all — one with a Google-built Edge tensor processing unit (TPU) custom-designed for AI workloads.
A custom operating system optimized for robots and home appliances — Luos — underpins Reachy. It sorts app code and drivers into modules and automatically organizes those modules to create a single system, such that it’s able to detect and localize all modules within a local network. Developers can program Reachy in Python on Windows, Mac, Linux, and Raspberry Pi, or tap one of several ready-to-use scenario including a game of tic-tac-toe, serving coffee, playing musical instruments, and handing out particular objects.
Reachy is available in basic, advanced, and “expressive” configurations, all of which contain up to six modules in total. It’ll cost between $8,990 to $17,000, with a set of 15 units anticipated to ship in the near future.
Groove X’s Lovot isn’t new, and it’s not even the first time the roving robot has appeared at CES. But the cuddly companion has finally moved beyond the prototype phase, and it’s available for $2,776 (299,800 yen) in Japan. A monthly fee starting at $83 includes regular software updates and optional data backup to the cloud.
Lovot — which looks something like a cross between a penguin and a lemur — has googly eyes, a touch-sensitive body, and mechanical flippers that wave to signal recognition of the person nearest to it. It’s akin to a pet in these respects, albeit with eyes and animations that can be customized and behaviors tracked courtesy of a mobile app.
Lovot roves around autonomously, and via the app, the camera mounted atop its head can snap 360-degree pictures of the surroundings. Its fuzzy base packs electronics including more than ten processor cores, an AI-accelerating FPGA, 20 microcontrollers, a person-distinguishing thermal camera, and over 50 sensors, as well as internal cooling fans and a half-sphere microphone that identifies the direction of sounds and voices.
The pint-sized robot is a versatile bugger, with an obstacle sensor that detects objects in its path and a depth camera that calculates differences in height. These help Lovot determine whether to rotate, retreat, or pursue some other path, as do its wheels, which retract for convenient storage.
Lovot comes in several colors plus outfits and a range of eclectic accessories. Groove X hopes to bring the Lovot to the U.S., but mum’s the word on when that might happen.
Hobbyist robotics kits aimed at kids are frankly a dime a dozen, but there’s more to Clicbot — a product of KEYi Tech, a Beijing-based developer of consumer robots like the CellRobot — than meets the eye. The modular platform features a screen mounted to a cylindrical “head” that displays an animated eye, which KEYi Tech says was designed by a team of animators hailing from Pixar. It’s vaguely emotive, but more importantly, it can be customized to a degree via a fully-featured and multi-platform software development kit.
Beyond the eye bit, Clicbot ships with over 50 out-of-the-box applications and more than 30 online STEAM courses, as well as a companion app that enables sharing of custom-programmed behaviors. “High-precision” control algorithms tuned by KEYi Tech are at developers’ disposal, including several that enable Clicbot to manipulate objects like water bottles and to react affectionately when its head is rubbed.
KEYi Tech expects that Clicbot will start at $300 when it goes on sale later in the year. Folks interested will be able to order units through Amazon and other as-yet undisclosed retailers.
You’ve likely laid eyes on Sony’s Aibo, but what about a robot pet for those who prefer a feline persuasion? Enter Elephant Robotics’ MarsCat, a so-called “bionic cat” that’s fully autonomous and easily reprogrammed. Thanks to a range of sensors, it’s able to respond to touches, hear voices, recognize faces, and emit several different meows, ultimately projecting a personality that changes according to the way people interact with it.
MarsCat sports 16 servo motors — two in the tail, two in the head, and 12 in the rear and front legs (three per leg) — and a Raspberry Pi 3, which serves as the brains of the operation. It recognizes toys courtesy of object recognition algorithms. As for personality, MarsCat cycles through one of several modes, among them “aloof,” “energetic,” “lazy,” and “social.” Each develops in reaction to the way folks pet the MarsCat’s body, as well as how often they speak to it and the tone of speech they use. (Elephant says it can recognize 20 keywords, like “come here.”)
Tinkerers can tap a software development kit to fine-tune the four main threads that drive MarsCat’s behavior — vision, voice, sensors, and AI. The color of its OLED eyes can be customized or even swapped out for a standard image file, and both the underlying protocols and libraries are open source.
MarsCat is fully compatible with the latest version of Scratch 3.0, MIT’s free programming language, and it can be programmed with Python directly. And in the future, Elephant plans to launch a portal through which developers will be able to share their creations.
MarsCat comes in four colors — white, gray, ginger, and black — and it packs a battery that lasts a quoted three hours with “constant” interactions and up to five hours for low usage, such as when it’s lying or sitting down while powered on. It’ll go on sale this year for $1,299.
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