Is Jibo the Next Roomba, or a Bigger Test for Consumer Robots?

7/29/14Follow @gthuang

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Jibo really interesting. A managing partner at seed-stage VC firm Founder Collective, Paley is an investor in Harvest Automation, a Boston-area robotics company with a labor and industrial focus on horticulture.

Reached by e-mail, Paley calls Jibo “definitely risky,” but he says “it will be all about what use cases it enables. If I have it around all the time because I find frequent uses for it, then it will be great. If it’s never where I need it in the infrequent moments that I need it, then it will never get used.” He thinks the robot is likely to be used for pictures, video conferencing, home automation, and searches and questions.

Paley says the emotion-sensing part of the technology relates to “wanting to engage the device, and the delight of the experience.” Which seems to be about Jibo’s basic personality and how it interacts with people. “No one wants to be engaging Hal 9000,” Paley says. Still, he adds, “The emotional part by itself isn’t enough to matter unless it is a therapy robot, and I think we’re a far distance from that being an engaging use case.”

Others think elder care is an intriguing application—not so much for therapy, but for checking in with aging family members remotely. “That could be incredibly valuable,” says Andy Palmer, an angel investor and entrepreneur who’s currently CEO of Tamr, based in Cambridge, MA.

Palmer has been an advisor to Affectiva—a startup working on software for emotion sensing and recognition—and his expertise spans technology and healthcare. He’s also the proud owner of a Roomba and a telepresence robot from Double Robotics, which he uses to interact with work colleagues remotely.

His main lesson for anyone trying to ship a consumer robot: “It has to be brutally easy to set up and configure,” he says. He also thinks Jibo’s $499 price tag is about right for breaking into the market.

So, if all goes well, could it be the next Roomba? “Yeah, for sure,” Palmer says.

But the stakes are higher than that. If Jibo succeeds, it could become a popular device for new kinds of social apps, content, and information discovery (hello Google acquisition—and privacy concerns). It could make people interact with devices in a richer way than staring and swiping at screens. It could change the social dynamics of some homes and families.

If Jibo fails, it could be because the joy of its coming-out party doesn’t translate to its actual use cases; or because the company falls down on customer service; or any number of startup problems. Whatever the reason, it would cast serious doubt on the viability of new consumer robots, even as the market—at least crowdfunding early adopters—seems receptive.

Neither scenario is about the robotics technology per se, but about the ability to solve real-world problems in a fun, easy way—maybe even problems we didn’t know we had. The smart money, in any case, is on Jibo leading to uses that no one has thought of yet.

Gregory T. Huang is Xconomy's Deputy Editor, National IT Editor, and the Editor of Xconomy Boston. You can e-mail him at gthuang@xconomy.com. Follow @gthuang

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  • Frank

    Looks very cool or at least the video demo does…whether or not it is that seemless yet to be seen. But its simple design and potential applications is intriguing. I would buy one….

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    good

  • Becky Lewis Garcia

    nice article!