Why an “Echo Show on Wheels” makes sense for Amazon
Bloomberg published an article yesterday claiming that Amazon is working on a secret home robot. People keep sending me the link and asking “what do you think Amazon’s robot is going to do”?
First, let me be clear that I don’t have any inside info on this. I did found the Cloud Robotics team at Google back in 2010, and ran my own robotics startup for a year, but I’ll really just be making an educated guess on this. That said, anyone who knows Lab126 well and works in the robotics space likely thought it was obvious that Amazon was working on a consumer robot. Simply reading the Bay Area job postings and watching friends switch jobs on LinkedIn is a good early warning system.
By any measure they seem to have assembled a stellar team from multiple companies across the fields of robotics, consumer electronics, and AI. But enough of how secret projects are hard to stay secret — what’s the thing going to do?
To answer that it helps to look at how Amazon releases new products. Lab126 has done a phenomenal job of embracing the rooftshot approach. The original Echo did very little upon launch, but later added more 1st party commands and then an SDK for an ecosystem of skills to emerge. Then they added a screen with a little-used camera for the Echo Show. Along the way they’ve launched products to expedite purchases (Dash buttons and wand) and got into computer vision (Look and Cloud Cam). Each new product enabled a new user experience thanks to a new technology.
This would imply that Amazon is either going to add a new piece of tech to their existing Echo platform (e.g. mobility) or start a new category entirely with a simple entry point as they did with Alexa.
It’s pretty easy to rule out the latter. Look around your home and think if there’s something you do frequently that can be made easier by automation. Unfortunately, doing the dishes, cleaning the house, and folding laundry just aren’t possible yet for robotics outside of research labs. I’ve been looking into this for many years and am fairly confident that iRobot and other floor cleaners have hit the limits of today’s affordable robot manipulation. There’s a huge chasm to leap before we see robots do physical work beyond floor care.
So is Amazon going to get into iRobot’s turf and make a floor cleaning robot? Highly unlikely.
Amazon already sells tons of robot vacs from a wide array of makers and could easily label one under their “Basics” brand to heavily promote it over others and take a bigger revenue share.
They’ve already pushed prices to the floor with various promotions and discounts here and most of these robots have Alexa integration already or plan to add it soon. So what’s to gain by engineering a new robot vac from scratch when many great ones already exist and have embraced Amazon’s AI platform and sales channel?
No, Amazon isn’t going to make yet another a vacuum or magically perform new chores for us. It’s going to put an Echo Show on wheels.
Amazon is very user focused and knows the Echo Show has a usability problem.
We have the Echo Show right next to our Google Home in the kitchen. Our entire family uses them both, and while Google’s Assistant is stronger on the AI side for answering questions, the Show’s screen really comes in handy for certain queries. The listing of ingredients for a soup recipe is much easier to absorb as a visual result vs an artificial voice reading them off.
This is where the challenge comes in. Where do we put the Show so we can see it when needed?
The voice-only devices work great because our verbal questions carry off in all directions and our ears can hear the response even if it’s behind us. Unfortunately, humans only have eyes in the front of our heads. This means the Show has a proximity and orientation problem for how users interact with it. Too far away and you can’t read the screen. Too much of an angle and you can’t read the screen. No matter how cheap they get, it’s not practical to cover every wall and surface of your home with an Amazon powered screen (although they are trying) so the screen needs to be brought to the user.
This brings us to Amazon’s latest obsession: cameras!
Here, too, it doesn’t take much probing on job boards and LinkedIn to see how heavily Amazon is investing in cameras and computer vision. Heck, they just spent $1 billion to buy a company who’s entire focus has been on cameras. They even have a service to deliver packages inside your house when you buy the Key Home Kit and Cloud Cam to monitor the door.
You may ask why not just put Echo Dots, Cloud Cams, Ring, and Shows everywhere? Why does a mobile robot help with cameras?
We researched this extensively at TickTock as we looked for opportunities around robots in the home. Security is indeed a hot topic and many home owners told us they have already installed Ring and Nest cameras pointed out their windows to look at yards and driveways. They real eye opener was how much resistance we saw about them being inward facing.
One man that we interviewed brought home a 7-pack of cameras that his wife outright rejected. She was totally uncomfortable living in a “surveillance state” with cameras watching her every move at home and made him take the cameras back. We saw situations like this again and again where there was a desire to have security yet unease about being watched at all times.
This is where a mobile camera can help. Have you ever wondered if the back door was left unlocked, the stove left on, or had a water leak you worried about while away from home? Most people have felt these concerns yet we don’t point cameras at our appliances or bathrooms.
Plus, a single mobile camera can cover every inch of your home to give you an accurate floorplan and inventory for better product recommendations. Amazon is smart enough to not do that initially and will let users warm up to a roaming camera first, but holding up products to your Echo and saying “buy me another one of these” is certainly coming.
How would an Alexa powered robot work?
The Echo Show and Dot support this great “drop in” feature to start a video stream between devices. It also works from the mobile app if you aren’t in the house or near one of these devices. We supported this at TickTock, as you can see in this video where I ask Alexa to drop in and then command the robot to go to the living room.
The camera also pans over to the TickTock mobile app, which shows a map of the room and current position of the robot. You can imagine this information being overlaid on the Show itself via a more deeply integrated app than what’s shown here.
What would the robot look like?
My hunch is something not too different from what you see here.
TickTock’s prototypes all used off-the-shelf robot parts such as the Kobuki, from Yujin robot. This was made popular by the Turtlebot from Willow Garage, and can be found in most every robot lab around the world thanks to its low cost and great I/O and power interfaces. It looks like a Roomba without the vacuuming parts.
The custom robotics stack that TickTock created ran entirely on Android, where we used the Asus Zenfone AR as the “brains”, which talked to the Kobuki over USB. Amazon is known to use Android in their products and is very likely using it for the robot as well. It’s anyone’s guess as to who their SoC partner is, but they seem to have a cozy relationship with Intel so that’s my bet.
Intel is known for their traditional computer chips but they also bought Movidius, which makes the powerful Myriad line of computer vision processors that powers the DJI Phantom 4 drones. Intel’s latest generation of RealSense depth sensors are also gaining traction and would help Amazon’s robot map the home and avoid running into things.
Instead of a phone being strapped on, they’ll of course deeply integrate the electronics.
Alexa on the go just seems to make the most sense.
If you’re in a room where there isn’t yet an Alexa powered device, just call out for one. The best speaker in your house can always be in the room you’re in.
Use it to go check on the kids, keep an eye on the house, or see what the pet is up to while you’re at work. Get whole-home security coverage (one robot per floor) without feeling like you’re constantly under watch. Plus it will finally make telepresence practical, thanks to the low cost, full autonomy, and ease of use with voice commands.
Have you ever tried to get your kids to sit at a computer to video chat with their grandparents? It probably seems about as fun to them as the video chat meetings we all try to avoid at our jobs. Now instead imagine Christmas morning with the kids on the floor opening presents while extended family can interact remotely through their own Echo devices as a fun little robot roams around.
Sounds like a winner to me!
[This is Part 1 in a five-part series on TickTock’s AR-powered robots. Be sure to check out Amazon’s Echo Show on Wheels, Consumer Robot Concepts, Low Cost Mobile Robots Using Android, Robots for Retailers, Augmented Reality and Robotics Overlap]