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Connected Homes February 2017 Viewpoints

Technology Analyst: Michael Gold

Home Robots

Why is this topic significant?

Several new robots will appear during 2017. One or more winners could emerge from the current burst of innovation activities.

Description

More than a dozen companies demonstrated cloud-connected robots at the Consumer Electronics Show in January 2017 and during recent months. Most of the robots embody features similar to those of Amazon.com's nonrobotic virtual-assistant appliances Echo and Dot, providing spoken reminders and notifications, serving as home-automation user interfaces, answering questions, telling stories, and playing music and games. Some of the products are stationary; others are mobile. What they have in common is animatronics: Heads tilt, eyes squint and blink, and other simple movements can be remarkably expressive. A representative example is Kuri from Mayfield Robotics, a wholly owned subsidiary of Robert Bosch, that is accepting preorders for late-2017 delivery of the wheel-equipped robot. TechCrunch reported that "a longtime Pixar animator" designed Kuri's movements.

During January 2017, Asus accepted a limited number of preorders for another wheeled robot: Zenbo. A flat-panel display serves as a face and resides at the end of an articulating robotic neck. Asus encourages software developers to enable new capabilities for Zenbo. Yet another wheeled robot—Avatar Mind's iPal—will reportedly be available in 2017. The company intends iPal to serve as an educational and entertaining companion for children. The robot has shoulder and elbow joints and its wrist can rotate—for example, to shake hands with a human user. Because iPal runs on the Android operating system, a potentially large base of software developers could add capabilities to the robot.

Several animatronic assistants are not mobile. Hanson Robotics's Professor Einstein robot is a 15-inch-tall caricature of the physicist with a face made of flexible material, presenting humanlike facial expressions. The company expects to begin shipping the $300 robot during spring 2017. Other fixed robotic personal-assistant appliances have an anime-inspired but high-tech appearance, including units demonstrated by brand-name players Bosch (Mykie), LG (LG Hub), and Sony (Xperia Agent), as well as start-ups Emotech (Olly) and Intuition Robotics (ElliQ).

Implications

Separate efforts by Asus and Avatar Mind reflect the likely market evolution for robots: Apps or their equivalents are likely to be as important to commercialization of robots as they have been for mobile devices and for Amazon's Echo. An alternative development pathway is to build robots that incorporate Amazon's Alexa virtual assistant, along with the large set of capabilities that third parties have contributed. Alexa is in LG Hub, which LG demonstrated but did not announce as a product. Any robot that contains Alexa could have advantages over robots that have immature developer-partner communities.

Impacts/Disruptions

The overall effect of animatronic facial expressions might be more than entertaining; coy eye blinks could be endearing and inspire strong feelings. Yet cuteness alone may not be enough of a benefit to inspire mass markets to adopt nonmobile assistant robots. Will people have more affection for cute mobile robots? Mobile robots have the added benefit of serving as a roving camera that can help a user check whether a child has come home from school, a pet is abusing furniture, or a package has arrived. Imaginably, such a robot could also deter burglary or capture images of a burglar, leading to recovery of stolen goods.

None of the new robots will retrieve a beer from a refrigerator, or, for that matter, manipulate any object at all. Articulated hands are not included in existing or promised home robots. And designers have yet to demonstrate a practical clothes-folding robot for home use. However, Boston Dynamics demonstrated its Spotmini dog robot loading dishes into a dishwasher in 2016, indicating that home robots might perform practical errands in the foreseeable future. The company recently proposed to use the dog to travel on public walkways to deliver packages.

Scale of Impact

  • Low
  • Medium
  • High
The scale of impact for this topic is: High

Time of Impact

  • Now
  • 5 Years
  • 10 Years
  • 15 Years
The time of impact for this topic is: 10 Years to 15 Years

Opportunities in the following industry areas:

Electronics manufacturing, retailing, cloud services, software development, sensors and actuators, psychology research

Relevant to the following Explorer Technology Areas:

Backscatter Communications

By Michael Gold, with contributions by Sean R. Barulich
Barulich is a research analyst with Strategic Business Insights.

Why is this topic significant?

An experimental technology has potential to deliver extremely low-power and perhaps battery-free wireless communication by selectively reflecting Wi-Fi and other preexisting radio-frequency signals.

Description

Laboratory research has demonstrated that backscatter communication allows data transmissions that consume very little power. Wherever wireless signals are already present, small radio reflectors can direct existing radio, cellular, TV, Bluetooth, and Wi-Fi signals to various receiving devices in homes and other buildings. In theory, practical batteryless designs could function solely by scavenging power from the radio-frequency (RF) energy in the air.

Recent research in backscattering systems seeks to improve range, data rate, and compatibility with existing Wi-Fi equipment while consuming only some tens of microwatts of power for signal processing. University of Washington researchers reported building backscatter devices that consume less than 60 microwatts and that communicate at data rates of 11 Mbit/s to off-the-shelf Wi-Fi devices 30 to 100 feet away; the method depends on a custom AC-powered RF-signal generator. A team of Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Stanford researchers reported building backscatter devices that consume about 33 microwatts and need no additional custom components to communicate to Wi-Fi devices some 175 feet away, while maintaining a 200 kbit/s data rate—data transfers that are far slower than those of Wi-Fi but still sufficient for many Internet of Things applications.

Implications

Backscatter communications might help people overcome one of the major disadvantages of connecting devices in homes—the proliferation of batteries that need charging or replacement on a schedule. For example, retrofitting security systems and energy-efficient zoned indoor-climate systems in homes can involve deploying a collection of sensors for temperature, humidity, and occupancy; wireless and batteryless systems could greatly simplify installation and maintenance.

Compatibility with existing Wi-Fi devices is a key research goal that could ease market development. In an ideal case, end users will be able to use existing phones, tablets, and computers to read data from batteryless tags without needing to buy a new router. Perhaps users would also have the option to acquire a plug-in AC-powered device to support low-power applications that require boosted data rates.

Impacts/Disruptions

Previous research in fully batteryless devices that scavenge available RF energy has tended to involve power-collecting antennas that are somewhat large. Full integration of batteryless backscatter devices seems likely to involve further research and trade-offs among performance characteristics such as size, data rate, and transmission distance. In some use cases, a minimal battery—perhaps even a printed battery—might enable reduced-size designs while sufficiently reducing or avoiding needs for battery replacements.

Efforts to commercialize backscatter communications face some additional technical risks. Interference is already a plague on wireless systems, and low-power communications can be especially vulnerable. Also, backscattering has strong dependence on the geometric arrangement of devices in rooms, which governs how RF-encoded data reflect from one antenna to another. Generally, because Wi-Fi, cellular, mesh networks, and other competing wireless channels are widely available, backscatter communications faces substantial barriers to market entry.

In ideal cases, low-power communication could help people find lost items and quickly locate items stored in warehouses and distribution centers. If researchers can integrate indoor-location technologies with backscatter communications, they might be able to take advantage of strong pent-up demand for low-power location technologies. Solutions need to address problems along the lines of "Where did I leave my eyeglasses?" and "Where in this distribution center are the mufflers for the customer's make and model of car?"

Scale of Impact

  • Low
  • Medium
  • High
The scale of impact for this topic is: High

Time of Impact

  • Now
  • 5 Years
  • 10 Years
  • 15 Years
The time of impact for this topic is: 15 Years

Opportunities in the following industry areas:

Electronics, wearables, software development, network-equipment manufacturing, Internet of Things, RFID

Relevant to the following Explorer Technology Areas: