The market for smart speakers has exploded over the past 12 months. Tractica estimates that more than 30 million smart speakers were sold in 2017, with Amazon’s Echo having the leading market share by a wide margin, followed by Google Home and Apple HomePod. Expect to see a continuation of that trend in 2018 with a likely doubling of the market, especially with the introduction of Chinese companies like JD.com, Baidu, and Xiaomi all launching smart speakers in 2018.
Bloomberg reported earlier this week that Amazon is planning to launch an Alexa on wheels, essentially converting the smart speaker into a household robot. Bloomberg suggests that Amazon’s Lab 126 unit has a secret project known as Vesta, which has been hiring several robotics engineers with a former Apple engineer leading its computer vision efforts for Vesta. Bloomberg says that, most likely, this robot will have self-driving capabilities in the home, allowing it to follow you through the house and is expected to hit the market in 2019.
Evolution of Robots and Smart Speakers in the Home
At Tractica, we have debated in the past whether smart speakers are robots. The fact is that smart speakers are stationary audio devices that do not qualify them for a “robotics” tag. Currently, household robots are dominated by vacuum robots like Roomba from iRobot; however, Tractica has been arguing that the future of vacuum robots is in taking on additional smart home features, such as security, entertainment, or being a personal assistant. iRobot has also alluded to this in the past, but does not seem to be anywhere close to getting there in terms of a product or feature set, based on its latest analyst briefing.
Traditional consumer robotic players iRobot and SoftBank Robotics, or newer players like Jibo and Blue Frog Robotics that service different ends of the market, ranging from cleaning robots to personal assistant robots, are up for some intense competition from smart speaker companies going forward. The popularity and adoption rate of smart speakers, especially Amazon Echo, eclipses anything that we have seen in the consumer robotics market. Amazon Echo has such a strong presence and lead in the smart speaker market, so it is quite easy for it to build on this lead and expand into consumer robotics. Amazon’s bet on building a credible and powerful voice assistant in Alexa is paying off nicely. Most households that own an Echo device already treat Alexa as a robot in the home, albeit a robot that is not “anthropomorphized” and does not have a face, body, legs, or arms. Amazon’s Alexa has avoided the “uncanny valley” problem that has plagued robotic designers for decades. Humans start to feel creeped out with robots that look too human-like based on the uncanny valley, so Alexa’s friendly human voice feels much less creepy. Alexa is essentially a humanoid robot without a physical body.
Fully Integrating and Leveraging Voice Assistant Capabilities
Amazon Alexa is onto something big here and its foray into robotics is not accidental. First, conversational interfaces are much more powerful as a human machine interaction (HMI) tool compared to physical robot interfaces like robot grippers, sensors, displays, etc. Secondly, the rate of advancement in conversational interfaces has been much more rapid compared to physical interfaces in the past few years, purely as a function of software and AI algorithms. Therefore, it makes sense that the future of consumer robots, especially family robots or personal assistant robots, will be built on the back of smart speakers.
While there have been poor attempts at integrating Amazon Alexa into physical robots for the home, smart speaker and voice assistant specialists like Amazon, Google, Apple, and Xiaomi are best positioned to build robots that can fully integrate and leverage the voice assistant capabilities. Smart speaker specialists can provide a tight coupling of software and hardware, adapting specialized hardware to take full advantage of conversational AI capabilities both today and on future roadmaps. Third-party developers building robots using Alexa will undoubtedly have limited features that they can build on, compared to what is available internally to Amazon engineers. Consider facial recognition, object recognition, emotion recognition, and collision avoidance, all of which are AI-enabled computer vision technologies that can be tightly integrated into an Alexa device to provide interesting possibilities and enhanced interactions in the home.
Innovation and Experimentation Indicate a Bright Future for Consumer Robots
Amazon, Google, Apple, and Baidu are the leading companies in terms of AI research and development, pushing the boundaries of AI algorithms in both natural language processing (NLP) and computer vision. And then there is the brand awareness that Amazon, Apple, Google, and Baidu have built, in addition to marketing prowess. It is going to be extremely hard for a Jibo or even an iRobot to compete.
The future of consumer robots is looking bright. It is not too far in the future when we will be able to buy a generic robot for the home that can play the role of a personal assistant, entertainer, security guard, and cleaner all in one product. We have the right ingredients coming together in terms of the ecosystem players, user interface (UI)/user experience (UX), AI technologies, and a wider developer ecosystem, which will no doubt continue to drive innovation and experimentation, both through third-party robots or through robots built by the smart speaker companies themselves.