Apple’s electric car loss could be home robotics’ gain

For every technology success story, we can no longer count the projects that collide head-on with the wall of reality. Apple’s electric vehicle ambitions are one of the latest – and, frankly, best – examples of a project that failed when it seemed to have everything going for it.

The jury is still out on the Vision Pro’s ultimate fate, but at the very least, Apple’s mixed reality headset demonstrates that the company isn’t afraid to keep trying where almost everyone else has failed. With the Apple Car firmly in the rearview mirror, the company is reportedly exploring yet another notoriously difficult path: home robots.

The category is both unique and particularly difficult for several reasons. What sets it apart from other categories is the fact that there has only been one success: the robot vacuum cleaner. It’s been 22 years since the first Roomba was introduced, and over the past two decades, an entire industry (including iRobot itself) has chased this success.

iRobot’s inability to strike gold a second time wasn’t for lack of trying. Nearly a quarter century after the Roomba was introduced, it has given us gutter cleaners, pool cleaners, lawn mowers, and even a Roomba specifically designed to remove screws and other material detritus from garage floors . Despite these efforts, the company achieved better results by focusing its resources on its robot vacuum cleaner.

Image credits: I robot

The robot vacuum succeeded for the same reason that any robot has ever succeeded: it was a product designed to perform a single requested task repetitively to the best of its ability. To this day, vacuum cleaners are the battlefield on which the home robot wars are fought. Take Matic, a well-funded Bay Area startup. The former Google/Nest engineers who founded the company believe the next breakthrough in home technology will be robot vacuums. Their argument, in part, is that iRobot has effectively painted itself into a corner thanks to its puck form factor.

These early Roombas were not built with today’s sensing and mapping capabilities in mind. Matic believes that by simply increasing the size of the robot you significantly improve its perspective. This is also what motivated the most interesting innovation found on Amazon’s Astro home robot: the periscope camera.

Image credits: Amazon

The fact is that the functionality of home robots is severely hampered by their form factor. The hockey puck design prevalent on robot vacuums isn’t ideal for anything other than the basic functionality it’s designed for. To effectively perform more of the tasks people might want in a home robot, the hardware must become more complex. Moving manipulators are a great moving target. In other words, if you want a helping hand, a helping hand is a good place to start.

However, like so many other things in this world, mobile manipulators are deceptively difficult. In fact, industrial robotics has not yet managed to solve it. Large bolt-on arms are common in manufacturing, and autonomous mobile robots on wheels (AMR) like Locus and Kiva are common in warehouses, but the happy medium between the two hasn’t been firmly established. This is a large part of why the human element remains important in this world. This is a problem that will be solved soon enough, but it seems likely that it will happen with these more expensive industrial machines long before it finds its way into more affordable home robots (as a general rule, companies usually have deep pockets deeper than individuals).

This is also a large part of the reason why many advocate the humanoid form factor in the workplace (human beings, after all, offer a kind of mobile manipulation). But that’s a long thought for another day.

man interacting with Hello Robotics

Image credits: Hello robotics

Mobile manipulation is not completely beyond the reach of domestic robots. Hello Robot’s Stretch is probably the most compelling example at the moment. Rather than a humanoid form factor, the robot resembles a Roomba with a pole mounted at its center. This houses both an imaging system and an arm that goes up and down to grab objects (dishes, laundry) at different heights. Sure, some tasks are easier to accomplish with two arms — and suddenly you start to understand why so many robotics companies have reverse-engineered humanoids.

In its current form, Stretch is prohibitively expensive at $24,950. This is probably a big part of why the company is selling it as a development platform. Interestingly, Matic views its own robot as a sort of development platform, using the vacuum cleaner as a gateway to additional household chores.

Another problem with Stretch is that it is teleoperated. There’s nothing wrong with using teleoperation in many scenarios, but it seems unlikely that people will flock to a human-controlled home robot somewhere far away.

Navigation is another major obstacle at home. Compared to warehouses and factories, homes are relatively unstructured environments. They differ greatly from each other, lighting tends to be all over the place, and humans are constantly moving things around and dropping them on the ground.

Matic vacuum cleaner

Matic’s vacuum uses a series of cameras to map spaces and understand where it is. Image credits: Matique

The world of autonomous driving has faced its own obstacles on this front. But the main difference between an autonomous robot on the highway and one at home is that the worst the latter can probably do is drop something on a shelf. It’s bad, but it very rarely results in death. On the other hand, with autonomous cars, any accident represents a significant setback for the industry. Technology is – perhaps understandably – held to higher standards than its human counterpart.

Although the adoption of self-driving technologies lags well behind what many expected, largely for the safety reasons discussed above, many technologies developed for this category have helped quietly launch their own revolution robotics, as autonomous vehicles invade farms and sidewalks.

This is probably a big part of why he might view home robots as “the next big thing” (to quote Bloomberg citing his sources). Apple has undoubtedly invested a huge amount of resources into driving technologies. If these could be reused for a different project, it might not be for nothing.

Although reports indicate that Apple “has not committed” to the robotic smart display or mobile robot that would exist somewhere in the company’s factories, it has already placed Apple Home executives Matt Costello and Brian Lynch, on the hardware side. , while John Giannandrea, senior vice president of machine learning and AI strategy, would be involved on the AI ​​side.

Image credits: Brian Heating

Given how close its efforts are to domestic, one can imagine the company is working on its own version of Amazon’s Astro – although that project currently exists as a cautionary tale for now. The project was hamstrung by its high cost and lack of useful features to justify it. The system also effectively served as a mobile Alexa portal, and home assistants have largely gone out of fashion in recent times.

Apple has a few expertise in robotics – although nothing comes close to what Amazon has on the industrial side. The company has been involved in producing robotic arms like Daisy, which recovers key metals from discarded iPhones. This is another big step towards a domestic robot.

Perhaps the company could take a more Vision Pro-like approach to this category, which places a heavy emphasis on developer contributions. This would, however, require an extremely versatile hardware platform, which would almost certainly be cost-prohibitive for most consumers, making the Vision Pro’s $3,500 price tag seem like small potatoes.


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