We’ve been expecting a personal robotics revolution since the early 90’s, and with due cause. The boom of science fiction literature, and robot images, created and popularized by mass-culture (Robocop, Rosie Jetsons and so on), led audiences to believe that in just a few short years we’ll have exciting life-like humanoid robots, totally autonomous, smarter than all of us combined and capable of doing absolutely anything.
As we know, that didn’t happen – and along with scores of investors who had lost their money back then, entrepreneurs became seriously afraid of any hardware in general, and later with a sigh of relief switched to developing and funding endless arrays of Happy Farm and Facebook-clones.
Yet, 30-40 years ago, there were mainframes – huge, expensive machines, accessible to a tiny fraction of the world’s population. Shortly after, personal computers disrupted the market and made enormous computing power available for everybody. Just like mainframes, there are a few key factors as to why now is the right timing for a consumer robotics revolution.
First off, costs of components have dropped dramatically during the last 5-10 years. Cheap and mass-manufactured sensors, cameras, batteries, and Kinect-like devices allow robots to be made for a tiny fraction of the price than it would take to build the same devices back then – thousands and tens of thousands of dollars versus hundreds or even millions.
Consumer robotics today have a unique opportunity to leverage technologies, advanced by other industries, such as smartphone manufacturing – thus, giving power to quickly build affordable robotics solutions to millions of innovators and tinkerers around the world. That’s crucially important, since truly disruptive products will come to the market not from the big corporations, but from the hundreds and thousands of innovative startups. Rapidly we are seeing exciting developments in educational robotics, drones, autonomous cars, home maintenance, and telepresence come together.
Second, new manufacturing technologies, such as affordable 3d-printing, which is already widely used for printing robot parts, allows even more opportunities for startup founders to experiment at their own homes. This capability will also allow inventors to bring their creations to developed countries while keeping up with China’s domination as a key manufacturer of all types of consumer hardware.
Third, the exciting connected-devices movement is essentially the other face of consumer robotics, and both of these trends eventually will merge into one another. The ‘internet of things’ products are important because they are winning the attention of once highly skeptical investors and are being adored by the crowdfunding community, giving way to more sophisticated robotics developments.
Finally, my advice to anyone who wants to speed up the consumer robotics revolution – forget (at least for now) about the humanoids you’ve been dreaming of from childhood. The technology is not quite there and you will not be able to keep up with the unrealistic expectations for these products. Focus on real problems, practical applications, keeping costs low and building beautifully looking (and working!) products – and if they are affordable and useful, nobody will actually care, whether they look human or robot at all. Very few people who buy the Roomba vacuum cleaner, actually call it a ‘robot’. Still, iRobot; perhaps, the most successful consumer robotics company at the moment, is selling tens of millions of units of its “robot” products.