Home robots had a bad 2018, and compared to previous years, they’re not as visible on the ground at CES 2019, too. The robots that haven’t bit the dust tend to be of the “teach kids how to code” variety, or conceptual bots like the laundry folding FoldiMate that at this point are more CES perennials than likely consumer products.
There are a lot of reasons why consumer bots fail, but it boils down to the fact they’re too expensive for what they can do—even if they’re very cute. Some, like Lovot, lean into their uselessness. (When I saw Lovot at CES, I asked what it does. A spokesperson told me, “Essentially nothing.”) Still, robot companies at CES are generally hoping to generate enough interest for someone to buy their products. So I was curious about Misty Robotics—precisely because it ’s not interested in consumers at all.
Whereas most robots at CES are prototypes of a finished product, Misty is a robotics platform. It’s a shell. There’s no set thing that it does and no set personality. I couldn’t tell you what Misty is supposed to do, and honestly, neither can Misty Robotics. That’s because Misty isn’t so much a robot as a robotics platform.
Misty Robotics is more interested in providing a tool for developers. The idea is to take robots from the hands of the niche community of roboticists, and put them into the hands programmers. That way, by the time you or I can buy one of their robots, there’ll be a built-in database of skills so it can, you know, actually do things.
“Right now, we’re about building up our community,” said founder Ian Bernstein, who also co-created Sphero. “It’s about opening up robots to anybody who can program. We decided to crowdfund because we wanted to be very high-touch with our community in the early years.”
This rings alarm bells because of the recent collapse of Jibo, another crowdfunded home robot with an enthused community that ultimately fell on its twerking arse. Three years after launching its campaign, delays led to miffed backers. When Jibo finally launched in 2017, it was very cute, about as functional as an Amazon Echo, and way too expensive at $US800 ($1,113).
So, while it was a clever idea to target developers only, I remained sceptical that Misty Robotics and Bernstein had created something that wasn’t doomed to the same fate as every consumer bot that came before it. That is until I saw it in action.
I was told to sit in a chair. The robot was programmed to recognise one user, who was decidedly not me. Once it saw my face, it set off an intruder alert, told me to leave, sent a text alert, took a picture of my face, and then printed a photo with the words “BUSTED” over my face.
In the next demo, Misty was set to roam around the hotel room and monitor temperature levels. Bernstein then stuck a space heater next to the robot, which then sent the data to a screen and triggered an alarm that temperatures were too high. I could easily see this being useful in a factory or research lab setting, where controlling temperatures can be vital for safety.
Both these demos are substantially more useful, customisable, and practical than I’ve seen in any robot demo thus far. When you add in the fact that Misty is a decently cute, modular robot, I have to say I was cautiously optimistic that perhaps this could be a viable approach toward a future where we actually live with robots.
Still, consumer robots have burned me before, and I’m still not 100 per cent convinced that Misty is the robot that will end up in everyone’s homes. Crowdfunding is heavily dependent on a community, and communities can be fickle. Plus, on top of delivering a product worth buying, the other challenge that routinely fells robotics firms is securing consistent funding. I’m not convinced relying on developers to provide that cash flow is all that sustainable.
In the short term, Misty Robotics is only aiming at shipping a few dozen units to backers. I have questions about scalability and logistics for the long-term, but for now, I’m content to see that maybe the home robot dream isn’t totally dead.