Apple's Electric Car Loss May Be Home Robotics' Gain | Tech Crunch

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For each technique A success story, there are countless projects that hit the brick wall of reality. Apple's electric vehicle ambitions are one of the most recent — and, frankly, best — examples of failures, despite seemingly having everything in place for the project.

The jury is still out on the Vision Pro's ultimate fate, but at the very least, Apple's mixed reality headset proves the company isn't afraid to try where everyone else has failed. With the Apple Car firmly in the rear view, the company is exploring another notorious avenue: home robots.

The category is unique and particularly difficult for several reasons. One thing that separates it from other categories is that there is definitely one success story: the robot vacuum. It's been 22 years since the first Roomba was introduced, and for the past two decades, the entire industry (including iRobot) has been chasing that success.

iRobot's failure to strike gold a second time is not for lack of trying. In the nearly quarter-century since it introduced the Roomba, it's also given us gutter cleaners, pool cleaners, lawn mowers, and a Roomba specifically designed to remove screws and other hardware detritus from garage floors. But despite those efforts, the company fared best when it focused its resources back into its robot vacuum.

Image Credits: iRobot

The robot vacuum succeeded for the same reason any robot succeeds: it's a product built to perform a demanding task over and over again to the best of its ability. To this day, vacuums are the battleground of the home robot wars. Take well-funded Bay Area startup Matic. The former Google/Nest engineers who founded the company believe the next advancement in the home will be built on the foundation of robot vacuums. Their point is that iRobot has effectively painted itself into a corner with its puck-like form factor.

Those early rooms weren't built with today's sensing and mapping capabilities in mind. Matic believes that by making the robot taller, you dramatically improve its vantage point. It's also the driver behind the most interesting innovation found in Amazon's Astro home robot: the periscope camera.

Image Credits: Amazon

The reality is that home robot functionality is severely affected by form factor. The hockey puck design prevalent among robot vacuums is not ideal for anything beyond the core functionality it is designed for. In order to effectively perform more of the types of tasks that people want in a home robot, the hardware needs to be more complex. Mobile manipulators are a great moving target. That said, if you need help, it's a good idea to start.

Like many other things in this world, mobile manipulators are deceptively difficult. In fact, industrial robotics has yet to crack it. Large, bolt-down 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 is not consistent. It's a big part of why the human element is important in that world. It's a problem that will soon be solved, but it's likely to happen with these expensive industrial machines before it makes its way into more affordable home robots (as a rule, corporations usually have deeper pockets than individuals).

It's also a big part of why many people justify the humanoid form factor in the workplace (humans, after all, provide mobile manipulation). But that's the long-term thinking part for another day.

A person interacting with hello robotics

Image Credits: Hello robotics

Mobile manipulation is not fully available for home robots. The Hello Robot stretch is probably the most compelling example at the moment. Rather than a humanoid form factor, the robot looks like a Roomba with a pole mounted in its center. It consists of both an imaging system and an arm that moves up and down to hold objects (dishes, laundry) at different heights. In fact, some tasks are more easily accomplished with two hands — and suddenly you start to see why so many robotics companies effectively reverse-engineer humanoids.

In its current form, the Stretch is quite expensive at $24,950. That's a big part of why the company sells it as a development platform. Interestingly, Matic sees its own robot as a development platform of sorts – using vacuuming as a gateway into additional household tasks.

Another problem with Stretch is that it is teleoperated. There's nothing wrong with a telep in many scenarios, but people aren't likely to flock to a home robot controlled by a human somewhere far away.

Navigation is another major barrier to home. Compared to warehouses and factories, homes are relatively unstructured environments. They are very different from each other, the lighting is all over the place and the humans are constantly moving things around and dropping things on the floor.

matic vacuum

Matic's vacuum uses a series of cameras to map spaces – and understand where it is in them. Image Credits: matic

The world of self-driving has faced its own hurdles before. But the key difference between an autonomous robot on the highway and another in the home is that the worst the latter is likely to do is drop something off the shelf. It is bad, but rarely leads to death. With self-driving cars, on the other hand, any accident could represent a significant step for the industry. Technology is – perhaps understandably – held to a higher standard than its human counterpart.

While the adoption of self-driving technologies has lagged behind the curve many expected, mostly for the aforementioned safety reasons, as autonomous vehicles take over fields and sidewalks, several technologies developed for the category have quietly helped kickstart their own robotics revolution.

This may be why home robots are seen as “the next big thing” (Bloomberg cites its sources). There is no doubt that Apple has pumped tremendous resources into driving technologies. If they can be repurposed for a different project, it might not all be a waste.

Although reports note that Apple is “not committed” to a robotic smart screen or mobile robot that is said to be somewhere in the company's skunkworks, it has already placed Apple Home executives Matt Costello and Brian Lynch on the hardware side. , John Giannandrea, SVP of machine learning and AI strategy, is said to be involved on the AI ​​side.

Image Credits: Brian Heiter

Given its proximity to its home efforts, it's conceivable that the company is working on its own version of Amazon's Astro — but that project is more cautious for now. The project was hampered by high cost and lack of useful features to justify it. The system also effectively served as a mobile Alexa portal, and home assistants have largely fallen out of fashion.

Apple has Some But Amazon is getting closer to its industrial side – robotics expertise. The company is involved in producing robot arms like Daisy, which salvages vital metals from discarded iPhones. That's still a big leap for a home robot.

The company could take a more Vision Pro-like approach to the category with a heavy focus on developer contributions. However, doing so would require a very versatile hardware platform that would be cost-prohibitive for most users, making the Vision Pro's $3,500 price tag seem like small potatoes.

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