Here Come the Consumer Robots

on January 4, 2019
Reading Time: 4 minutes

One category of products I’ll be watching closely next week in Las Vegas at the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) is consumer robots. While the commercial/industrial robot category has been growing fast (and is a category IDC is watching closely), the consumer market has been slower to take off. I expect things to pick up over the next few years, and we’re likely to see some interesting new products unveiled for 2019 at the show. The big question is this: Are mainstream consumer ready to bring a robot into their homes?

Single-Purpose Robots
To date, the biggest category of consumer robots has been single-purpose devices. The most popular: Vacuuming robots. This category has evolved from strictly high-end products from category pioneer iRobot years ago to a wide range of lower-priced (but often less “smart”) products from a long and growing list of lesser-known vendors. Today, robot vacuums make up an ever-increasingly percentage of the vacuums sold in the world, but I’d argue they are still not a truly mainstream product. What the vacuuming robot category has done is drive interest in other single-purpose robots. In recent years the category has expanded to include a wide range of other types of products, including robots that clean pools, empty gutters, mow lawns, and more.

Two of the key new features of some of the more advanced vacuuming robots is the addition of smartphone apps and integration with some of today’s smart assistants such as Amazon Alexa and Google Assistant. The introduction of apps brought a long list of new capabilities, from scheduling jobs to viewing reports. And smart assistant integration has made it possible to initiate jobs with your voice. It’s this last piece, voice-enabled robots, that really begins to make this category interesting.

Educational Bots
Voice integration is one of the key attributes of another key consumer robot category: Educational Robots. This segment includes a wide range of products, from robots that truly aim to educate children, to devices focused on entertaining people young and old. One of the more interesting companies in this space is Anki, which has shipped several small robots into the consumer market. The company’s latest is called Vector, and he’s an engaging little fellow that responds to voice commands and can do rudimentary tasks such as tell you the weather, set a timer, take a photo, and even play Blackjack. Perhaps more importantly, Vector is a small, relatively inexpensive ($250) product that utilizes Artificial Intelligence to get smarter—and to better understand its humans—the longer it is in your house. And Anki recently enabled Alexa support, too.

AI is currently an overused buzzword in tech, but when it comes to consumer robots, it’s going to be key to the evolution of the category. One of the pioneers of consumer robots, Sony, recently re-introduced its family-focused consumer robot dog Aibo. The first Aibo shipped back in 1999 and shipped through 2006. The relaunched version for the United States costs an eye-watering $2,900 but includes a three-year subscription to Sony’s AI Cloud. Using the cloud, Aibo uploads its day-to-day experiences, and over time it builds a database of these experiences, which leads to each dog having its own unique personality and traits.

What companies such as Anki and Sony are doing is utilizing AI to create robots that move beyond educational or entertaining to something more. They’re working to create highly personalized robots that know and understand their owners, and that can provide some level of real companionship over time. Some will find this endearing, others will find it creepy, but this is clearly the direction today’s consumer robots are headed.

Consumer Interest In Robots
To date, the market has proven there is an appetite for vacuuming robots. Smart robots such as Vector and Aibo haven’t been in market long enough to prove there’s a sustainable category here, yet, but the growth of smart assistants in the home—primarily in the form of smart speakers—seems to indicate that consumers broadly are warming to the idea of voice-enabled devices in the home. As others have noted, it’s not a stretch to assume that a company such as Amazon, which has both a consumer smart assistant in Alexa as well as an existing robot division (it bought Kiva Systems in 2012), will eventually bring to market a consumer robot. The question is, when? Based on my research, the company would be wise not to rush a product into market before consumers are ready.

At IDC we recently surveyed U.S. consumers about their interest in a robot for the home. The results were mixed at best. While more than a quarter of the 1,932 respondents said they were interested in a single-purpose robot, nearly 45% of respondents said they had no interest in buying a robot for the home. Interest in smart-assistant-enabled robots, security robots, and child- and elder-care robots were all in the single digits. We didn’t specifically ask about privacy, but its likely that this is one of the key blockers for many consumer after a tumultuous year where trust around privacy has taken a beating.

We went on to ask respondents who expressed an interest in consumer robots which brands they would like to buy from if they offered a robot in the future. Amazon and Apple topped the list, followed by Google, Samsung, and iRobot. At present, only the last two offer robots.

Obviously, consumer sentiment around robots for the home is far from fully formed. That said, interest is likely to grow as more of these types of products enter the market. This year will be an important one for the category in this regard, and we’re likely to see some very interesting products announced next week. However, it’s still very early days in the consumer robot market. It’s going to take years for the category to grows into a mainstream product segment, but it should be a very interesting ride along the way.