There's a bot for that
A view from Mark Manning

There's a bot for that

If I'd have spent another week at CES 2020, I still wouldn't have had time to look at and interact with all of the new robotics technologies and innovations represented on the showroom floor.

The best companies tend to be user-centric organizations that believe amazing things happen to both business and brand when the user is put first. With that in mind, I found myself inundated with robots at CES this year that were capable of doing a range of things from reading the news on live television to making pizza, and I wondered which of them were designed to address legitimate user needs. 

  1. RollBot by Charmin. The RollBot is a robot designed to deliver a roll of toilet paper when you’ve gone to the loo and find yourself without a roll of toilet paper in your time of need. This is a fun and funny bot with a cute bear face and training wheels for ears, but ultimately it’s a well-executed PR play for Charmin that’s nonsensical for practical usage unless RollBot can open doors or cabinets like our terrifying friend Spot. I’d suggest Charmin focus more on SmellSense than Rollbot if they’re looking to introduce user-centric services to their toilet paper and wet wipe product lines, but I applaud the approach and I’m confident they knew what they were doing here (and it probably didn’t involve a beta release for what they believed would be a commercially viable toilet paper robot). 

  • BOCCO emo by Yukai Engineering. Health & wellness was a macro trend at CES this year and this emotional support robot was a great representation of the trend. BOCCO emo alongside a similar robot, LOVOT by Groove X, is there to help people maintain happiness in the home. The cynical side of me questions whether we should be relying on robots for human happiness regardless of the obvious cuteness factor, but with loneliness rivaling obesity and smoking as legitimate health risks I can see how these bots could be addressing a legitimate user need for an aging population. Especially those in empty nests or post-bereavement households. If these robots are designed for an aging generation to address relevant use cases around loneliness and health in the home, I’m willing to put the snark aside in pursuit of the greater good. 

  • Ballie by Samsung. Ballie is a robot designed to make our lives easier by helping us out around the house. It is proactive and anticipatory and if you squint your eyes you can almost image BB-8 rolling around as your own personal life companion despite the bot more closely resembling a large tennis ball than a Star Wars droid. Samsung President, H.S. Kim, declared that Ballie is "more than just a cute robot" and represents the next evolution of IOT. The convention floor demonstration at CES did a good job at showing a small selection of use cases leveraging Ballie’s on-device AI capabilities and sensors. From recognizing other robots like Roomba by iRobot when cleaning services are detected, to triggering other smart home devices based on time of day or relevance to the user, Ballie is the solution-layer that can orchestrate the modern smart home. I’d be surprised if Google, Amazon, and other smart home players didn’t join the party as you can imagine the Nest Hub on wheels or Alexa on-the-go as a natural extension of what already exists today. I’m looking forward to seeing how these bots will evolve to address more practical user needs as much as they are already solving for the complexity of a meaningful smart home ecosystem, but this is a cool space and one to watch for CES 2021+. 

  • Qoobo by Yukai Engineering. This bot represents a micro trend in robotics I noticed at the conference this year that saw robots playing a similar roles as pets. Qoobo is a cat pillow with a fuzzy tail--missing a head, but that’s not the point. This bot appear best suited to seniors who want the emotional benefits of having a pet but who also may have allergies, and, therefore, not allowed to have a cat or a dog in their assisted living facility, or may not have the ability to take on all the extra responsibility that comes with having a real pet (e.g. walking the dog, cleaning the litter box, etc.). On that note Qoobo serves a similar purpose to LOVOT or BOCCO emo, but in the form factor of a cat versus a droid. Another example is MarsCat by Elephant Robotics, which was designed to be completely autonomous and responsive to interactions, with the ability to feel touch, hear voices, see faces, and play with toys. MarsCat unlike Qoobo comes with a head, but no fluffy tail. These robots play far more to the heart than to the head, and it’s hard to say there isn’t a legitimate user need if these robots are being designed to contribute positively to human emotional health.

  • If I’d have spent another week at CES 2020, I still wouldn’t have had time to look at and interact with all of the new robotics technologies and innovations represented on the showroom floor. Which is to say: As direct-to-consumer robotics continue to evolve across this now very young new decade, I hope the designers and manufacturers continue add value to our lives by bringing unique perspectives to user problems that only robotics can solve.

    Mark Manning is managing director, Google at Huge Oakland.