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

7/29/14Follow @gthuang

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 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 or call him at 617-252-7323. 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!