CES 2017: Family Robots, Toy Robots, Service Robots, and Autonomous Cars

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At CES 2017, the robotics category showcased 27 exhibitors at the Robotics Marketplace, but if you include drones and self-driving cars, robots had a much bigger presence at the show. Family robots and service robots were particularly widespread across the showroom floor, but as Tractica believes, the term “robot” is undergoing a change of definition, and now includes everything from self-driving cars to drones, all of which were on display at CES.

While the wearables market looks like it is entering a phase of maturity, robotics is entering a phase of experimentation and innovation. Both categories are at different stages of their market development curve, and CES 2017 provided some good overall indicators about where robotics might be headed.

Family Robots

Family robots were all over the exhibit floor at CES 2017. LG announced the Hub, Mayfield Robotics had Kuri, and Bosch had Mykie, all of which are new entrants in the family robot space. There is also increasing activity from Chinese companies like Rokid, Zaijia, Kikoo and Moorebot. Baidu has partnered with Zaijia to offer a new robot called Xiaoyu, with Baidu providing its Duer OS software engine and artificial intelligence (AI) personal assistant that is China’s answer to Amazon Echo. It is clear that the success of Amazon Echo has spawned a new era in consumer robots with voice-based personal assistants getting a physical form factor. If the rumors of the new version of Echo having a screen are true, it will put Amazon front and center within the family robot market.

The family robot is essentially a hub that connects Internet of things (IoT) devices, music, and schedules, and creates a voice-based interface to the web. Voice is the key user interface that is revolutionizing how consumers interact with robots in the home. While Amazon and Google have a lead on voice and speech recognition, this feature is likely to become commoditized at the lower end, allowing for a mass market of voice-enabled family robot assistants. The next step is for voice capabilities to become sensitized to different languages and accents, allowing for European, Latin American, and Asian variants.

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Toy and Educational Robots

As for toy and educational robots, the Lego Boost is Lego’s entrance in the “educational robots that teach you to code” marketplace. This is different from Lego Mindstorms, which catered to the robot enthusiast, while Boost is targeted at young kids and teaching them to code. Chinese smartphone manufacturer Xiaomi debuted its Mi Bunny Robot Builder set priced at $72, which is significantly cheaper than most other toy and educational robots. Following Xiaomi’s success in the fitness tracker space, its entry in the toy robot space should not be taken lightly.

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Service Robots

Service robots were also on display at CES 2017, although most of these felt gimmicky, rather than something likely to become a mass market phenomenon. LG announced airport robots, and companies like AvatarMind (iPal), Ubtech Robotics (Lynx), Future Robot (FURo-S), and Qihan (Sanbot) all had robots that could perform customer service functions in retail, hospitality, transport, and healthcare. SoftBank’s Pepper also made an appearance at CES 2017 and is the original service robot, having been deployed across Japan, Korea, Europe, and now in the United States. It is not surprising to see many more companies enter the service robot market, although based on the features showcased, most of them seem like imitations of Pepper in either functionality or form factor. Overall, the market is moving in the right direction, but it still needs to mature and add more differentiation and clearer value propositions.

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Another area of robotics that has been overlooked for the most part is elderly care robots. One such robot company we came across was YUMII from France. YUMII is targeting home care assistance for the elderly, with its robot behaving as a companion and as a collaborative platform for home care assistance. While Japan is already seeing quick adoption of elderly care robots, there is a big gap in markets like Europe and North America.

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Autonomous Cars

The Automotive Marketplace at CES this year was awash with self-driving cars and concepts that centered on the autonomous car future. According to Tractica, autonomous cars will be the most successful robotics market in the future, therefore, it was a key focus area for us at CES 2017. NVIDIA announced its partnership with Audi in launching a Level 4 autonomous car available by 2020. NVIDIA also showcased its co-pilot technology, which is more near-term focused on enhancing the safety of drivers through sensors and cameras both outside and inside. For example, the co-pilot would warn a driver if a biker suddenly moves into the lane, or use its driver-facing camera to warn the driver to pull over if the driver is looking fatigued or agitated. There were also plenty of autonomous concept cars on display from Ford, Mercedes, Hyundai, Nissan, Toyota, Chevrolet, and Faraday Future, among others.

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Automotive Artificial Intelligence Goes Beyond Autonomous Driving

Interestingly, AI is not just being used for autonomous driving capabilities, but possibly has a larger role to play in creating and crafting the user experience inside the car. Mercedes showcased how AI is being used in its mobile app today to help its customers schedule their day and streamline their tasks. Examples include placing coffee orders in advance, automatically booking deliveries to be collected by the car, making restaurant reservations, modifying your calendar, etc. Rather than partner with a company like Google, Facebook, or Microsoft, Mercedes is building these capabilities in-house.

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It is understandable why Mercedes would like to build on precious customer data and customer preferences by using AI to create personalized experiences. However, as a customer, I would find it frustrating to build duplicate calendars and personal preferences, rather than have the car download these preferences through application programming interfaces (APIs) already in existence from Google, Microsoft, or Facebook.

Health and wellness is another area where carmakers seem to be shifting their focus toward an autonomous driving future. Both Mercedes and Hyundai were showing how the car of the future would sense physiological metrics and driver stress levels, creating a customized environment in the car to ensure that you reach your destination in a more relaxed and mindful state. Mercedes also had a concept smart vest that would alert you and the car of an impending heart attack.

In summary, the car is becoming the next battleground for technology companies and auto manufacturers. AI and deep learning are at the center of this transformation. As the car starts taking over driving from the end user, its value proposition shifts from being a mode of transport to becoming a second home. In other words, think of the car as the second home, and possibly a smarter home, than the one you live in today.

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