Is Jibo the Next Roomba, or a Bigger Test for Consumer Robots?
Cynthia Breazeal has been a media darling since her grad-student days at MIT’s Artificial Intelligence Lab. She has worked on “social robots” with expressive faces and names like Kismet and Leonardo. So it’s no surprise that her current startup—and robot, called Jibo—is getting lots of attention.
The company’s crowdfunding campaign on Indiegogo has netted more than $1.2 million since its launch on July 16. A prototype of the robot (pronounced JEE-bow), featured in a playful demo video, can do things like take family pictures around a table, tell kids bedtime stories, and voice reminders about your calendar or messages. It does all this in a cute package, with a swiveling head-like display straight out of a Pixar film (though it won’t hop around your house). The robot is on sale for $499 but won’t ship until late 2015 or early 2016, according to the company.
Breazeal, Jibo’s CEO, is currently on leave from the MIT Media Lab, where she leads the Personal Robots Group. Jibo has raised several million dollars—the company hasn’t disclosed exactly how much—from investors including CRV (formerly known as Charles River Ventures), Fairhaven Capital, and Generator Ventures. Now, with a successful crowdfunding campaign under its belt, the startup can expect more venture capitalists to get interested in a hurry.
And that speaks to the current state of commercial robotics. The field of home robots in particular has seen remarkably little change since iRobot introduced the Roomba in 2002. For all the talk of the field being like the PC industry in the early ‘80s, mainstream robots have been few and far between. In the past five years, there have been signs that things are changing, but robotics still needs a lightning rod to focus the energy and attention of consumers.
Jibo might be just that. There’s nothing inherently amazing about what this “family robot” can do, but it puts together capabilities in areas like face tracking, gestural interfaces, emotion sensing, speech recognition and synthesis, and computer vision and graphics. And does so in a way that feels new, at least.
“You just couldn’t do this five years ago cost-effectively,” says Bruce Sachs, the partner who led CRV’s investment in Jibo. He’s talking about off-the-shelf technical stuff like low-power processing and camera technology, but also “access to the supply chain in Asia.”
Indeed, shipping a hardware product remains a critical challenge for any startup. Jibo (and consumer robotics in general) will have plenty of technology risk hanging over it until it proves it can manufacture and deliver robots for a mass audience.
Sachs admits it’s very early days for the company. “There’s a lot of development that has to go on between now and when Jibo is in production,” he says. “But I don’t think it’s invention or rocket science.”
I talked with a few other tech investors with knowledge of robotics and human-machine interfaces who aren’t involved with the company. The general consensus: Jibo is risky, but intriguing, as a business.
Count Eric Paley among the outside investors who find … Next Page »