A New Kind of Family Robot is Launched in China

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Family robots are a new category of consumer robots that have emerged in the last year or so. Jibo, Pepper from SoftBank Robotics, and Buddy from Blue Frog Robotics are the first family robots that have been unveiled so far. Pepper has been available on a limited release basis in Japan, with 1,000 robots selling out in under a minute, when it first went on sale in June 2015. SoftBank has been selling Pepper units in small batches since then, but only limited to Japan. The company has plans to launch Pepper in the United States sometime in 2016. Buddy and Jibo are also planned for commercial launch in 2016. Consumer robotics is a hot emerging space within robotics, with the market poised for expansion beyond vacuum cleaner robots, which have dominated the landscape up to this point. Family robots will be an important category, and  in an upcoming Tractica report on Consumer Robotics, we forecast that approximately 4.5 million family robots will be shipping annually on a worldwide basis by 2020.

Family robots are essentially personal assistants or companion robots that can play multiple roles. They can be personal organizers that help you plan your calendar and provide reminders, photographers that capture special moments, personal communicators that can text, call and videoconference, entertainment robots and playmates for your kids, security robots that keep an eye on the house, or they can play the role of a personal companion providing emotional support. Also, family robots don’t conform to the classic definitions or form factors of humanoid robots, instead using smart design to represent anthropomorphic features and characteristics. For example, Jibo is a stationary robot that sits on a tabletop, with the key distinguishing anthropomorphic feature being a revolving head that has an animated face, which can also double as a touchscreen. In addition, Jibo uses artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning techniques including voice and speech recognition, machine vision with depth perception capabilities, and touch sensors on its head that help it recognize emotions through touch.

The initial target markets for these companies include North America, the United Kingdom, Australia, France, and Japan. While these companies plan to support Mandarin Chinese in future iterations, the China market has not yet been addressed by these early family robot companies. This is a market opportunity that was too good to miss out on for Rokid Corporation, a Chinese home automation company that has just unveiled what it calls the first Chinese family robot, called Rokid. Similar to Jibo, Rokid is a stationary robot, but is also completely immobile and does not have any moving parts. In many ways, it is not a classic robot in that it doesn’t move at all, but it has intelligent robot capabilities like omnidirectional voice recognition using eight microphones, face recognition using its front camera, and a screen that can show moving graphics. Rokid is also able to integrate into smart home automation systems. In many ways, Rokid is similar to many of the voice-based assistant devices that are coming into the market like Amazon Echo, Ubi, Mycroft, or Cubic, many of which are also capable of smart home integration. One big differentiator is that these robots don’t possess facial recognition capabilities. Rokid could spurn other similar family robots emerging that are immobile but have smart machine vision and voice recognition capabilities. However, there are limitations in such robots, where the robot has to be physically moved, especially when doing videoconference calls. One would think that having a moving head makes the robot much more anthropomorphic and more likely to gain acceptance as a family member or companion. On the other hand, people have been known to form close relationships with a text-based bot, and movies like Her have shown how voice-based assistants could conceivably become close companions. It’s too early to say how this market will evolve, and whether voice-based assistants might morph into family robots, or if a middle ground will emerge. The definition of a robot, especially in the consumer context, is definitely in flux, with new products emerging that throw the old definitions out the window.

Consumer Robots

(Source: Beijing Review, Rokid Corporation)

China is also a market that should see more activity around family robots. Baidu is a leading candidate that could launch something in this space, as it has a strong focus on artificial intelligence, led by one of the key pioneers in the AI space, Andrew Ng. Xiaomi is another company that has been expanding into wearables, in addition to its lead in smartphones. Huawei and even Alibaba are companies that could enter the consumer robotics space, and certainly have the resources to do so. The key reason is that China has an aging population. China has suffered the consequences of its one-child policy, and only now has it started to reverse that policy. It might be too late, as the most populous country in the world is aging rapidly. By 2020, approximately 20% of China’s population will be over 65, by 2030 this will rise to 30%, and by 2050 this figure will be closer to 35%, with more than one in three people being senior citizens. We have already seen Japan move headfirst into robotics, largely because it foresaw the issues that come with an aging population and the strain it puts on the eldercare system and the larger impact on society. Now that we have seen the government recognize aging as a serious problem by reversing the one-child policy, technology companies and entrepreneurs will not be far behind in coming up with solutions, with family robots being one such solution.

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