April 12, 2024

Apple’s electric car loss could be home robotics gain

For every technique success story, there are countless projects that crash headlong into the brick wall of reality. Apple’s electric vehicle ambitions are one of the latest – and, frankly, best – examples of a project failing despite everything looking like it would.

The jury is still out on the ultimate fate of the Vision Pro, but at the very least, Apple’s mixed reality headset shows that the company isn’t afraid to keep trying where virtually everyone else has failed. With the Apple Car firmly in the rearview mirror, the company is reportedly exploring another notoriously difficult path: home robots.

The category is both unique and uniquely difficult for a number of reasons. One thing that sets it apart from other categories is the fact that there is exactly one success story: the robot vacuum cleaner. It’s been 22 years since the first Roomba was introduced, and over the past twenty years an entire industry (including iRobot itself) has been chasing that success.

iRobot’s inability to win gold for a second time isn’t due to a lack of trying. In the nearly quarter-century since Roomba was introduced, it has given us gutter cleaners, pool cleaners, lawn mowers, and even a Roomba specifically designed to remove screws and other hardware debris from garage floors. Despite these efforts, however, the company has fared best when it refocused its resources on its robot vacuum cleaner.

Image credits: I robot

The robot vacuum cleaner succeeded for the same reason every robot has ever succeeded: it was a product built to perform a single high-demand task repeatedly and to the best of its ability. To this day, vacuum cleaners are the battlefield on which the home robot wars are fought. Take the well-funded Bay Area startup Matic. The former Google/Nest engineers who founded the company believe the next home breakthrough will be built on the foundation of robot vacuum cleaners. Their argument is in part that iRobot has effectively painted itself into a corner with its puck-like form factor.

Those early Roombas weren’t built with today’s sensing and mapping capabilities in mind. Matic believes that by simply making the robot bigger you dramatically improve its vantage point. This was also the driving force behind the most interesting innovation on Amazon’s Astro home robot: the periscope camera.

Image credits: Amazon

The fact is that the functionality of home robots is seriously hampered by the form factor. The hockey puck design common to robot vacuums isn’t ideal for anything other than the core functionality it was built for. To effectively perform more of the kinds of tasks people might want in a home robot, the hardware must become more complex. Mobile manipulators are a great moving target. That is, if you need a helping hand, a hand is a good place to start.

But like so many other things in this world, mobile manipulators are deceptively difficult. In fact, industrial robotics hasn’t cracked it yet. Large, bolt-on arms are common in manufacturing, and wheeled autonomous mobile robots (AMRs) such as Locus and Kiva are common in warehouses, but the middle ground between the two has not yet been firmly established. This is a big part of the reason the human element remains important in that world. It’s a problem that will be solved soon enough, but it seems likely that it will happen to these more expensive industrial machines long before it makes its way to more affordable home robots (as a rule, companies generally have deeper pockets than people).

This is also a big part of why many are in favor of the humanoid form factor in the workplace (humans offer a kind of mobile manipulation, after all). But that’s a long-winded think piece for another day.

man interacting with Hello Robotics

Image credits: Hello Robotics

Mobile manipulation is not entirely beyond the reach of home robots. Hello Robot’s Stretch is probably the most compelling example of this moment. Instead of having a human-like form factor, the robot resembles a Roomba with a pole mounted in the middle. This contains both an imaging system and an arm that moves up and down to grasp objects (dishes, laundry) at different heights. Of course, some tasks are easier to perform with two arms – and suddenly you start to understand why so many robotics companies have effectively backward-engineered humanoids.

As it stands, Stretch is prohibitively expensive at $24,950. That’s probably a big part of the reason the company sells it as a development platform. Interestingly, Matic sees his own robot as a kind of development platform, using vacuuming as a gateway to additional household tasks.

Another problem with Stretch is that it is teleoperable. There’s nothing wrong with teleop in many scenarios, but it seems unlikely that people will flock to a home robot controlled by a human somewhere far away.

Navigation is another major barrier to the home. Compared to warehouses and factories, homes are relatively unstructured environments. They vary greatly from one to the other, there is lighting everywhere and people are constantly moving things and dropping things on the floor.

Matic vacuum

Matic’s vacuum uses an array of cameras to map spaces – and understand where it is within them. Image credits: Mediocre

The world of self-driving has faced its own obstacles in this regard. But the main difference between an autonomous robot on the highway and another at home is that the worst thing the latter is likely to do is knock something off the shelf. That’s bad, but very rarely does it lead to death. With self-driving cars, on the other hand, every accident represents a major step backwards for the sector. The technology is, perhaps understandably, held to a higher standard than its human counterpart.

While the adoption of self-driving technologies is far behind the curve that many expected, largely for the safety reasons mentioned above, many of the technologies developed for this category have helped to quietly spark their own robotics revolution, now autonomous vehicles taking over farms and sidewalks.

This is likely a big part of why it could see home robots as “the next big thing” (to quote Bloomberg from its sources). Apple has undoubtedly poured a huge amount of resources into powertrain technologies. If those can be used for another project, it might not all be in vain.

While the reports note that Apple “has not committed” to the robotic smart display or mobile robot that would exist somewhere in the company’s skunkworks, it has already put Apple Home executives Matt Costello and Brian Lynch on the hardware side . , while SVP Machine Learning and AI Strategy John Giannandrea would be involved in the AI ​​side of things.

Image credits: Brian Heating

Given the proximity to its home operations, you might imagine the company is working on its own version of Amazon’s Astro — although that project is more of a cautionary tale for now. The project is hampered by its high cost and a lack of useful features to justify it. The system also served effectively as a mobile Alexa portal, and home assistants have largely fallen out of fashion recently.

Apple does have that some expertise in robotics – although nothing close to what Amazon has on the industrial side. The company has been involved in the production of robotic arms such as Daisy, which recover important metals from discarded iPhones. That’s still a pretty big leap to a home robot.

Perhaps the company could take a more Vision Pro-like approach to the category, with a strong emphasis on developer contributions. However, this would require an extremely versatile hardware platform, which would almost certainly be unaffordable for most consumers, making the Vision Pro’s $3,500 price tag seem like small potatoes.

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