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Why are some social robots selling well, whilst others are stalled or failing?

November 18, 2016

Amazon’s Echo sales have exceeded 4 million and they are ramping up to sell 10 million in 2017; Google’s Home has received positive reviews and have just begun selling in large numbers; but SoftBank’s Pepper and Cynthia Breazeal’s Jibo have either failed or are stalled. Why?

The bots: Amazon Echo Alexa vs. Google Home

Amazon’s success with Echo has revealed a consumer acceptance of voice-controlled devices housing virtual digital assistants. Xiaoice, a Microsoft Chinese language bot, has millions of users and can identify photos and carry on playful discussions as if it were a real person. Xiaoice’s acceptance has confirmed that there is a broad user base for these types of bots. What Alexa proved is that there is a growing market of people willing to engage with internet services at home without a screen. That transition, to voice interactions and artificial intelligence, could be a predictor of what’s to come in the near future. Alexa doesn’t need Google. People talk to it and ask it about the weather or recipe ingredients; it looks up things to buy. They search with it. Wait! They search with their Alexa Echo? Google has spent years building intelligent voice assistants for phone and tablets, and now suddenly here’s Amazon  stealing its thunder. Hence the newly launched Google Home

Forbes recently compared Amazon’s $179 Echo to Google’s $129 Home:

“Amazon Echo has a ring of LED lights that tell the user when it’s listening and when it’s processing a request. Users can rotate the top of the device to control volume. There are two buttons on top of Echo: First is an action button for turning off a timer or alarm, or waking up the device for voice commands; the second is a mute button that turns the microphone off so it’s not listening.

Google Home has four colorful LED lights sitting on top that tell the user when it’s listening. It also has a bit more options for physical input: the top of the speaker has a touch surface for playing or pausing audio; changing volume; or starting requests. Like Echo, there is also a mute button.

Amazon Echo is powered by Amazon’s voice assistant, Alexa. Echo wakes up to the word “Alexa” to begin taking your commands. Right off the bat, the device makes it easy to set timers or alerts, ask what the weather is, play music. Echo users can manage all the settings and features in an Alexa app. The app is also where users can enable and browse through so-called Skills — Amazon’s version of an Alexa app.

Google Home is running on Assistant, which is Google’s latest version of its virtual assistant for responding to users’ requests in a conversational manner. Users trigger Google Home with “OK, Google” or “Hey, Google” to start controlling it. It’s able to do the usual — set timers, tell the weather, play a song. But because Google has a lot of information on its users with access to calendars and emails, it can get to know users a lot more intimately than Amazon can right now.

Another important aspect of these two devices is how well they work as a platform for third-parties services and devices. Amazon’s Alexa has more than 3,000 “skills” and can do everything from summoning an Uber to ordering a pizza to turning up the temperature. Google is also creating a specialized developer kit with apps being called “Actions,” and which are separated into two types: Direct Actions and Conversational Actions. Direct Actions are for the kind of tasks that are straight forward — like turn on a light, or play a song on Spotify. Conversational Actions are for a bit more complicated requests like ordering an Uber, where there needs to be some back and forth happening — it needs to know where you want to go and what level of Uber service.”

Amazon’s Echo doesn’t sell in China. Nor does Google’s Home. Here are a few other bots, two of which sell in China:

JD.com, China’s largest online direct sales company, sells a similar product to the Echo and Home devices: the DingDong Smart Speaker. The DingDong Smart Speaker uses the JD+ super app (called “Jingdong Weilian”) to allow full voice control of all products in the JD+ ecosystem.

Baidu, the Chinese telcom giant, is selling Duer, a conversational virtual assistant service. The assistant service provides quick and easy access to Baidu’s various Internet services and engages in a dialogue with users rather than simply being voice-controlled.

Fabriq, a French startup, is a speaker device that sells for $50 and uses Amazon’s own Alexa functionality. With almost all of Alexa’s smarts — everything from music and news to third-party skills, smart home control, and jokes — Fabriq offers plenty of tech appeal in an attractive little package.

C|Net said: “Fabriq proved to be a capable Alexa gadget. It did a nice job understanding my voice commands, and though it sometimes needed to think a second or two longer than the Echo before pulling up a song I had requested, I came away satisfied with the user-friendly smarts. At just $50, it shows a lot of promise.”

The mobile social companions: Pepper and Jibo

Two notable social robotic ventures are having a different experience than Amazon and Google:

1.   Although SoftBank has sold slightly more than 7,000 Pepper robots to consumers and businesses in Japan and France and still plans to launch in Taiwan, China and the U.S. very soon, their emotion engine – Pepper’s main selling point – will be turned off.

“I’m not sure that being able to read emotions can add to service,” said Morten Paulsen, who covers industrial automation giant Fanuc Corp. as head of Japan research at CLSA Asia-Pacific Markets. “There are several Peppers in my office building, but I don’t see anyone gathering around them anymore. They are basically animated iPads.”

Many people have reported seeing Peppers idle and in corners instead of out front greeting and interacting with people.

2.    Jibo, the much-publicized first product from social robotics pioneer and MIT professor Cynthia Braezeal, has had a series of setbacks and delays including having to refund all non-English-speaking Jibo orders and most recently having to split their initial deliveries into Beta or hold-til-later groups (I’m in the latter). Beta’s are being delivered now so we’ll soon hear from the community how well it performs and meets expectations.

Many other mobile robots have been announced but haven’t come to market just yet. Asus’ Zenbo, at $599, is quite interesting; Buddy from Blue Frog Robotics seems to have run out of money after it got panned in an MIT Technology article; and Future Robots FURo is selling in small numbers as mobile information kiosks.

Bottom line

Can it be that consumers don’t care as much about the mobility aspect as they do about price and conversational interaction? Or is it mismanagement problem, as Bloomberg reporters Pavel Alpeyev and Takashi Amano suggest in their BloombergTechnology report on Pepper and SoftBank?

Frank Tobe is the owner and publisher of The Robot Report, and is also a panel member for Robohub's Robotics by Invitation series... read more


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